Choosing Our Own Destiny
George MacDonald & C. S. Lewis on Rights, Duties, Heaven & Hell
by Charles E. Bressler
In January of 1939 C. S. Lewis wrote to a friend that he had just finished one of George MacDonald’s later novels, What’s Mine’s Mine, first published in 1886, and called it the fourth greatest book he had ever read. Lewis asserted in several places in his writings that MacDonald was his literary master, and after reading this comment, I was struck with the similarity of the title to what I believed to be the theme of Lewis’s The Great Divorce, written just five years after he read MacDonald’s novel: giving up all of one’s rights and thereby saying to God, “Thy will be done,” as the only way to obtain Heaven.
The word “rights” appears at least twenty-five times in The Great Divorce and at least fifty times in What’s Mine’s Mine. Could there be a link between these two works?
There are several striking resemblances. For example, in both books it is through dreams that the main characters learn spiritual truths. In both, the characters must learn that becoming like Christ is painful. And in both, some characters show that pride, intellect, physical beauty, gossip, and even motherly love can and often do usurp God’s place in our lives. And, as readers of The Great Divorce will remember, the most important words in that book are given by George MacDonald. Here I will concentrate on one similarity between these two books: their view of individual or personal rights and their effect on our relation to God.
Briefly put, The Great Divorce uses the idea of the Refrigerium, offered by the Church Father Prudentius: the speculation that the damned are given holidays or excursions. The souls in Hell—described as a dreary, rainy, depressed gray town—have a choice either to go back to earth to play tricks on “poor daft women ye call mediums” (and most do indeed choose earth as their destination) or to take a bus to what we might call Heaven’s depot or outpost—which is not deep Heaven itself, however.
Lewis was, by the way, careful in the preface to the book to beg readers to remember that the story is “a fantasy” and the picture of Heaven and Hell “solely an imaginative supposal” that did not say anything about the details of the next life. As the book’s guide tells the narrator: “Do not fash yourself with such questions. Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till you are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself.”
The Ghosts’ Choice
The soul who chooses to come to Heaven’s depot is met by the “Bright Spirit” of someone he or she had known on earth, someone whose abode is deep Heaven, one who is “in” love, one who lives in the presence of God. Sent as Godbearers to the damned, these Bright Spirits confront the ghosts with the choice to keep their pet sin and return to Hell or to reject it and stay in Heaven. In contrast to the insubstantial ghosts who find it extremely painful to walk on Heaven’s soft grass, the Bright Spirits shake the very earth upon which they walk.
One such meeting occurs between a “Big Ghost” and a Bright Spirit named Len. Len had worked in the Big Ghost’s factory and murdered a fellow employee named Jack. He has now been sent from deep Heaven to assist the Big Ghost on his journey to joy, if the ghost will only accept such aid.
Throughout the conversation, the Big Ghost keeps repeating the word rights. After all, he declares, he was a good man: “I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. And what I don’t see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you, Len.” He declares that he deserves to be in a better place than the gray town, for he was a decent man, one who never took any charity and always worked for what he got.
Over and over the ghost demands his rights, constantly refusing Len’s plea that he accept what he calls “the Bleeding Charity.” The Big Ghost ends the conversation shouting, “I came here to get my rights, see? Not to go sniveling along on charity tied onto your apron strings. If they’re too fine to have me without you, I’ll go home.” And he does.
The Red Lizard
Similarly we observe the meeting of the ghost of an Anglican bishop with a former college classmate, a Bright Spirit named Dick. Like the Big Ghost, the Episcopal Ghost demands his rights—in this case, the right to intellectual freedom. By conversation’s end, the Episcopal Ghost decides he cannot stay in Heaven, for he must go back to the gray city and present a paper at a meeting of a theological society on what would have been Christ’s “mature views” if he had lived a long life.
We also observe the meeting of the ghost of Robert’s wife with the Bright Spirit of a friend named Hilda. The ghost demands to see Robert, for she misses him greatly. She has a right to see him, after all: She always did her duty toward her husband. She made him make the correct social contacts, she made him industrious, she made him exercise, she made him. . . . She demands her right to finish what she started, and when refused access to her husband on her terms, abruptly leaves Heaven.
But one ghost stands out from the rest: a ghost with a creature on his shoulder, a red lizard that keeps whispering into his ear. A Bright Spirit appears, asking the ghost if he would like him to quiet the lizard. The ghost answers, “Of course I would.” But the Spirit, now called an angel, asks to kill the lizard. The ghost is shocked. Kill him? No! Silence him, yes, but not kill him. For the ghost has become used to this lizard. As the angel comes closer to the ghost, the ghost shouts, “Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
The angel answers, “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.” The lizard reminds the ghost that the angel could in fact kill it. But who, then, the lizard asks, would whisper sweet dreams in the ghost’s ear? Tormented by the lizard (who we later learn represents lust), the ghost screams to the angel to kill the creature.
When it dies, the lizard changes into a silvery white stallion and carries into deep Heaven the transformed ghost, who is now a solid man. Unlike the other ghosts, this ghost chooses to give up his “rights,” to give up that which pleases him, and by so doing, enters deep Heaven.
In chapter 9, about halfway through the book, the unnamed narrator meets a teacher named George MacDonald, who explains to him the purpose of each ghost’s journey. The narrator asks the man with the Scottish accent if the ghosts could stay in Heaven, and then inquires about those “poor ghosts who never get into the omnibus at all.” The teacher answers:
All of us are thus presented with a choice: to abandon to Christ all our so-called rights and obtain Heaven in the process, or to keep our rights or any such right and thereby choose ourselves and earn our spot in Hell.
It is a lesson MacDonald himself offered in What’s Mine’s Mine. The novel tells the story of two families or houses, one old and one new. The Peregrine Palmers are newcomers to the Scottish highlands, having recently purchased choice property high up in northern Scotland. Mr. Peregrine Palmer, whose name means “pilgrim pilgrim,” has taken residence in a newly built house with his wife, his two daughters—Christina and Mercy—and his two sons, who are for the most part absent from the tale.
Unbeknown to the Palmers, they are living on land once owned by the Macruadh clan, now greatly diminished in wealth and property, but not pride of lineage. Alister Macruadh is now the leader of the clan and therefore the protector of his people. His younger brother, Ian, is the intellectual one and he whose heart is most directed toward finding and knowing God.
The Palmers believe themselves to be superior to these low-class, uneducated, dirt-poor Scots. The Palmers love their Mammon, their money, and their social status. The Macruadhs, on the other hand, are the aristocracy of this region of the Scottish highlands. They, and in particular Alister, the chief, are the ones to whom members of the clan come for advice, comfort, and protection. What they lack in material wealth they have abundantly in wisdom, understanding, and grace.
Through a series of rather predictable events, the two Palmer sisters fall in love with the two Macruadh brothers, Christina with Ian and Mercy with Alister. Christina’s love, however, is merely superficial, for she wants men to pay homage to her but then, having enjoyed the conquest, casts them aside.
Mercy and Alister, however, are of common mind. And through Alister’s tutelage and as a direct result of his spiritual awakening, Mercy comes to an understanding both of herself and of God. Her father, however, has no such epiphany. Hating the Macruadh clan, he forbids Mercy to marry Alister, but she does anyway. He eventually casts her from his home, and lives a life filled with hate and isolation.
To Be & To Obey
In What’s Mine’s Mine, each major character must make a choice: to live for self and one’s “rights” or to live for God and others, giving up his rights to his own prideful, selfish ways. Not only is the word “rights” repeated at least fifty times throughout the text, it is used by every major character.
For example, the boys’ mother Isobel must (like Michael’s mother, another of the ghosts in The Great Divorce) choose whether to love God first or her son. At one point, Isobel says to Ian, “What concerns you is more interesting to me than anything else in the whole world.” To which Ian responds, “Not more than God, mother?” At that point in her life, “God was to her an awe, not a ceaseless, growing delight.” Eventually, however, she does learn, through heartache, pain, and love, that she must love God first, and her children second.
Like his mother, Ian must also choose to discover or to reject God. He finally discovers that he must “obey God in the smallest things” in order to find him. When he chooses obedience in the smallest things, like not shooting animals for sport, he is then able to say to his mother, “When will men understand that it is neither thought nor talk, neither sorrow for sin nor love of holiness that is required of them, but obedience! To be and to obey are one.” Like Sarah Smith, “one of the great ones” in The Great Divorce, Ian is “in” love with God, and tells his mother, “I don’t believe about him, mother, I believe in him. He is my life.”
In essence, Ian chooses to abandon his rights to God, as does the man with the red lizard on his shoulder. Before leaving his beloved Scotland to emigrate to Canada, Ian can finally say, “I owe my self nothing. What has my self ever done for me, but lead me wrong? What but it has come between me and my duty—between me and my very Father in heaven—between me and my fellow man. . . . [We] have no rights.” He has learned that all “hangs in the will of God” and he has experienced “a positive, an active rest” while living and working in this world.
In Lewis’s personal copy of MacDonald’s What’s Mine’s Mine (held in the Wade Collection at Wheaton College), Lewis had underlined several passages. Next to these lines in Lewis’s copy of What’s Mine’s Mine, Lewis wrote the two Greek words energeia and akinesia. I interpret the first as an energy or some power at work and the second as not being able to move, a lack of motion. Lewis means that Ian is thus able to experience an energy, a power at work within him while he is at rest. It is God transforming Ian, not Ian himself. By abandoning all his rights to his life, Ian is now being changed by God himself.
Alister must make the same choice as Ian and the others. He loves the land, but his “love of the material world, of the soil of his ancestral acres . . . is not yet one with the meaning and will of God.” He knows and partially understands his struggle. He understands that “those who are trying to be good are more continuously troubled than the indifferent,” and he realizes that “the love of possessing as property, must, unchecked, come in time to annihilate in a man the inheritance of the meek.”
What he must learn, he eventually hears from the mouth of his brother: “God only can be ours perfectly; nothing called property can be ours at all.” And through a series of blows, many of which come by the hand of Peregrine Palmer, many members of the Macruadh clan lose their property and come to Alister for help. In turn, he must sell his land to help his clan and, finally, must emigrate to Canada. Upon selling his land—his pride, his right—he has learned that “In God alone can trust repose.”
By giving up his land, by giving up “his false deity,” he has also learned that he has no rights before God. As he says, “Let God take from us what he will; himself he can only give.” The narrator then notes that “Joyful [Alister] went down the hill” and left the land, a man who owned nothing but finally realized that “God was, and all was well.”
Like the two Macruadh brothers, the two Palmer sisters are on their own journeys of choosing self or choosing God and others. Like Robert’s wife in The Great Divorce, Christina lives for herself. The narrator notes that “few have learned that one is of no value except to God and other people. Miss Palmer worshiped herself and therefore would fain be worshiped.” For her, the glory of life was the subjugation of men.
She and she alone stands at the center of her world, “for her world was a very small one, and in its temple stood her image.” In choosing self, she fails to learn that “she was a nobody—that if the world were peopled with creatures like her, it would be no more worth sustaining than were it a world of sand, of which no man could build even a hut.”
As the novel opens, Mercy is an “unawakened soul” who, by observing, listening to, and copying the actions of her Godbearer, Alister, awakens to God’s dreams and desires for her. Like Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce, she learns that the power of human love is next to the power of God’s love. By learning to love Alister and his God, “this plain, ordinary-looking young woman with fine eyes, began to put on the robes of beauty.”
But it is Mr. Peregrine Palmer who (like Ikey, another ghost in The Great Divorce) lives for commodities, for money, what MacDonald dubs Mammon. Mr. Palmer believes his wealth—in this instance being his land—buys him his rights. His lands, his rights, are, he asserts, his and his alone. When asked to give a small parcel of his property to one of the oldest members of the Macruadh clan, he yells, “What’s mine’s mine, as I mean every man jack of you to know—chief and beggar.” In demanding to keep his rights, he successfully alienates his children and lives out his final days in loneliness, cut off from those who love him.
To say to God, “Thy will be done,” or have God say to you, “Thy will be done,” is the theme and challenge of both MacDonald’s and Lewis’s stories. To say to God, “Thy will be done” means self-abandonment. As Ian notes in What’s Mine’s Mine, “I am sometimes almost terrified at the scope of the demands made upon me, at the perfection of the self-abandonment required of me; yet outside of such absoluteness can be no salvation.”
Indeed, when confronted with choosing to love the world in the form of land or Mammon or choosing to love God above all else, Ian, like the man with the lizard on his shoulder in The Great Divorce, chooses God. He says:
Like all the characters in The Great Divorce and What’s Mine’s Mine, we too must make a choice. We all have a lizard on our shoulders. And in the privacy of our inner worlds, we enjoy this lizard. We think we cannot get along without our lizards. We have come to believe that we need them to make our lives tolerable.
And when God comes to us asking to destroy them, we feel his heat, his love, and we experience real, not imagined, pain. Such pain is impossible to ignore. Either we will give God permission to destroy the lizard or not. Either we can claim our right of independence or give up ourselves and our lizards and claim our dependency on God. Only in claiming our dependency, note Lewis and MacDonald, can we find real joy and finally, like Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce, be “in love” itself.
I conclude with a prayer voiced by Ian, who abandoned all his rights to Christ, choosing God above all else:
Ian concludes by looking to Christ as our model:
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Choosing Our Own Destiny” first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.