In the middle of The Great Divorce Lewis meets the person sent to talk to him, writer and poet George MacDonald. This is a crucial part of the book. MacDonald accompanies Lewis and some of the conversations they see from this point are discussed between the two of them, with MacDonald offering much explanation.
Just before MacDonald shows up we are offered a very strange scene. A ghost, that was possible a woman, appears to be hiding. She does not want to be ‘seen’ in her current shadowy shape; she feels ashamed. Despite the Solid people assuring her they all felt like that and that this state will pass, the ghost almost comes out of its hiding place but then refuses
“I should never forgive myself if I did. Never, never. And it’s not fair. They ought to have warned us. I’d have never come.”
“Friend” said the Spirit. “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself.”
Continued refusal leads the Spirit to say, “Then only one expedient remains.” Following this a herd of unicorn appears, thundering towards them. They are all enormous trampling the undergrowth in their procession. It is a frightening vision and both the shame-full Ghost and Lewis run in terror. The final card the Spirit can play is that of terror in the hope that for one moment the hiding Ghost will think for one moment on something other than herself, that even if it is fear that motivates it, that thoughts will go to the unicorns and off self.
The Unicorns are startling in the same way that the Lions are earlier on. In medieval mythology Unicorns were untameable and wild creatures. Only in the presence of a virgin they will calm, lay their heads on the maids lap and be still. Lewis, himself wrote a poem about a unicorn coming to Noah’s Ark but being turned away. In the poem there are suggestions that the Unicorn is a symbol of Christ. Noah laments:
“’Oh long shall be the furrows ploughed across the hearts of men
Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,”
Maybe here is something of the presence of Christ in a form that is wild and threatens to completely overwhelm the ghosts. The charging herd is there to get the Ghost to look away from self, out to the beauty of heaven. There is something about God’s love that is “over-whelming” and in the encounter with this untamable love we have the possibility of forgetting self and finding our true selves.
After fleeing Lewis runs straight into MacDonald. Following Lewis’ initial star struck awe, the two of them begin a conversation, which is key to understanding something of what is going on in the book. Lewis’ guide gives him a different perspective on what is going on. MacDonald explains that something of these final decisions for or against God, for Heaven of for Hell work backwards through a person’s existence.
“And that is why, at the end of all things, when the Sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven “ and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.””
Lewis wonders whether then, Heaven and Hell are just states of mind but this is not what his Guide meant completely.
“Hush,” he said sternly. “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind… and every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature, within the dungeon of its own mind- is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”
MacDonald explains the mentality of the Lost by using a quote from Milton:
“The choice of every lost Soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something they prefer to joy-that is to reality. Ye see it enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.”
To come to Hell is to carry on with a mentality developed during life, a concentration on self and desires, which lock us away from others. To come to Heaven is to come into the presence of Life itself, to see ourselves as we really are and to find ourselves by losing ourselves in God.
We then see a succession of Ghost who illustrate something of what MacDonald is saying: The Artist who has forgotten why he first painted and only values his own work, for its own sake; the Grumble who has nothing left of the original person only the moaning; the wife who made her husband miserable by using him to fulfil her own ambition; the mother who would rather her son were tormented with her in Hell, than happy in Heaven without her and who refuses to let go of her possessiveness and meet him in true love.
There is a moment of pathos, which Lewis, the author could not have seen at the time of writing this book, published in 1946. His character questions the tack taking with the bereaved mother. Would he dare to talk that way if he, himself had not been bereaved? MacDonald replies that it is not Lewis’ office to do this he is not a good enough man. “When your own heart’s been broken it will be time for you to think of talking.” We know that this situation did occur some years later. Lewis wrote “A Grief Observed” in 1961, after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, the year before.
All the way through this dream, this fantasy we have seen ghost after ghost reject goodness or cling on to some aspect of themselves rather than let go of all and travel deeper into the Heavenly realm. Now we come to the one person who gives up that which has ruled him in life. This ghost arrives carrying a lizard on his shoulder. He is met, not by someone he knew in life but by an Angel.
The Lizard, who is an unpleasant whining creature, goads and persuades. The Ghost at one moment snaps at it, telling it to be quite, the next listens and gives in.
The Angel is persistent in offering to kill the creature. It is the only way to make it quiet. The Ghost initially wants more time to decide, to which the Angel replies, “There is no other day. All days are present.” Putting the thing off is no good. Now is the time for decision. The Ghost is then convinced that killing the lizard will also kill him, to which the Angel says, “It won’t but suppose it did?” “You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
The reality of the Angel, the burning fire of its love does hurt the ghost, but he does not die. And then something incredible happens. The body of the dead lizard transforms. In the creatures place is a beautiful stallion. The ghost too ceases to be a shade and becomes more solid, transformed now into a new man. He leaps onto the horse’s back and rides towards the mountains. The land itself responds with a joyous chorus in celebration.
Perplexed Lewis’ ghost turns to his Teacher for explanation.
“What is a lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”
Evil has nothing of its own. It can only twist that which is good. Deep in us we have a desire for love, which is ultimately a desire for God, the source of that love. For this man this desire has been corrupted into the whining of lust and as such as dominated the man’s life. He is not free all the time the lizard sits on his shoulder. His final rejection of it frees him and his desire is reborn in its original state and enables him to travel to the mountains, where God dwells. Here is the true object of his love.