Six Degrees: From Mr. Raven to George MacDonald
Well hullo again. I’m finally back from my wonderful vacation with another Six Degrees installment. Hopefully you’re chomping at the bit to see what’s next so let’s jump right in! The last spot on this lengthy literary trail was Jenelle’s post about Lilith by George MacDonald. Like several other of MacDonald’s works, Lilith features characters that are more symbolic than what most modern readers are accustomed to. As such, it was a bit of a challenge to find a fit for such books, but found one I have. And it is none other than George MacDonald himself!
But how can this be, you say? An author can’t be linked to a character can he? Doesn’t that break some fundamental law in the space time continuum? Well…maybe, if I was talking about the actual George MacDonald, but in fact, I am not. I am referring to C.S. Lewis’ fictionalized version of him in his book The Great Divorce. You see, much like Mr. Raven from Lilith in Lewis’ metaphysical tale, MacDonald functions as sort of a guide through various scenes. These all occur in the after life, most of them somewhere just at the edge of heaven and it Lewis’ unnamed narrator turns to MacDonald often to process what he is witnessing. Like Mr. Raven, the fictional version of MacDonald has insights that the narrator can’t tap into and though Lewis’ main character is more willing to listen to his guide than Mr Vane is to his guide, they perform a very similar function.
When I read Jenelle’s description of Mr. Raven and Mr. Vane it seemed like a natural mirror for what Lewis wrote about in The Great Divorce. So rest assured, no laws of the space time continuum were violated in the writing of this post. George MacDonald’s character does in fact link to George MacDonald the character. It doesn’t get much more meta than that now does it?
So who else populates this rather unique mythical tale? Well, like Lilith, the characters here are symbolic more often than not. They are more like “types” or sketches than real people and many of them appear only briefly in the story and then are gone. Among them is the Hard-Bitten Ghost (Lewis refers to most of the people he meets in this realm as ghosts though there is nothing particularly frightening or horrific about them). This man has seen it all and claims to see through the empty promises of faith and religion and hope an all that. The world is all rot to him and everything eventually ends in disappointment so why bother? The problem with his philosophy is that when he finally is standing on the verge of the real Heaven he thinks it’s just a sham like everything else.
Then we have Robert’s Wife. She is a nag who can’t seem to find any purpose for herself if she can’t sacrifice for someone else, specifically Robert. She needs to be needed or at least feel needed. A very similar character is Michael’s Mother. She too does not want to go on without her son. The difference is that she seems to genuinely care for her son to a certain point. With her it’s not about controlling him and being needed as much as it is that her son has for her become a replacement for God. He is all she really cares about and she can’t bear the thought that God would be more important to her son than she is. She is a picture of what happens when we see God as a means to an end and refuse to allow our natural loves to surrender and be swallowed up in the love of God.
There is also the Dark Oily Ghost, a deeply troubled character with a red lizard on his shoulder. The creature whispers terrible things in his ear and seems to represent some sort of besetting sin which he realizes he cannot keep if he wants to go into heaven. After much struggle he allows an angel to kill the beast and it is transformed into a magnificent stallion and the freed man rides off into “everlasting morning”. This character stands out as one of the few positive encounters the narrator has during his journeys.
Finally, and saddest of all in my opinion, is The Dwarf and Frank the Tragedian. And no that is not bad grammar. Though there are two figures, they are actually the same person or, as Lewis puts it “the remains of what had been a person.” This miserable wretch is offered a chance at true love and joy, but instead chooses to hold onto his pain instead. In a sad and terrible result, he cannot seem to understand a world without suffering and longing. This character provides a picture of what happens when we choose to embrace our sin and make it the object of our pursuits. Everything becomes hollow and empty and we, like the Tragedian are led about by a dwarf on a chain, mastered by our sins instead of surrendering them at the cross.
The Great Divorce is certainly a classic. As a Christian work, it suffers from some bad theology, but it is a very insightful piece of spiritual fiction if one sees these encounters as illustrations of how our choices affect us and the true nature of love.
We’ve been bouncing around a lot in the works of Lewis and MacDonald lately here on Six Degrees, but if you see a connection to some other author and would like to add your voice to the conversation, you’re more than welcome to join in the fun. Visit the Six Degrees main page for information about how to participate. We’d love to see what you come up with!