C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

Some readers have called The Great Divorce Lewis’s Divine Comedy, and for good reason. In both stories, the author/narrator journeys from hell to heaven, meets a variety of people along the way, and discovers that in the afterlife unredeemed souls are not solid; they are ghosts. In both books the redeemed are radiant “solid people.” At the end of both books the pilgrim returns to earth to resume his life and tell readers what he has seen and heard.

The Bus Driver

There are other connections between Lewis’s Great Divorce and Dante’s
Divine Comedy. On July 30, 1954, two years before I talked with Lewis, he wrote to an American reader named Mr. Kinter. “The closest conscious connection to Dante in G. Divorce,” he said, “is the angel who drives the bus: cg – Inferno IX 79-102.”

All Lewis said about “the angel who drives the bus” down into the twilight city in The Great Divorce was “The Driver himself seemed full of light and he used only one hand to drive with. The other he waved before his face to fan away the greasy steam of rain…. he had a look of authority and seemed intent on carrying out his job.”

Dante said little more than that about his angel that came down through the dark air and thick fog of the fifth circle of Hell:

…I saw more than a thousand ruined souls scattering out of the way of one who crossed the swampy Styx without wetting his feet. He kept waving the thick air away from his face with his left hand, and that was all that seemed to require any effort.

I could tell that he was a heavenly messenger.

I turned to my teacher, and he signalled me to keep quiet and bow down to him.

He seemed to be full of scorn [for Furies guarding the gate of Dis]. He reached the gate and touched it with a wand to open it; there was no resistance….

Then he turned and retraced his path through the filth, without a word to us; and looked like one concerned about matters different from the ones at hand.

In his 1962 preface to The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis spoke of Dante’s angels: “In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’ The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, ‘There, there.’ The literary symbols are more dangerous [than sculptures and pictures] because they are not so easily recognized as symbolical. Those of Dante are best. Before his angels we sink in awe.”

Some readers also sink in awe before Lewis’s angelic Driver and take him for the Holy Spirit or Christ. David Clark makes a good case for the latter interpretation and concludes “Jesus is the only possible identity of the One he is describing.” (See “‘Only One Has Descended into Hell’: Who Is the Bus Driver in The Great Divorce?” in The Lamp-Post of the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society, Vol. 23, Number 2, Summer 1999.) But if Lewis’s bus driver represents Jesus, then Lewis must have taken Dante’s angelic helper in the Inferno to be Jesus; and there is no record in Lewis’s letters or his essays about Dante that he held such a revolutionary opinion. If he had, it seems he would at least have said so to his friends Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers, both Dante experts. David Clark does not address this problem.

Sarah Smith

In his 1954 letter to Mr. Kinter, Lewis continued: “The unsuccessful meeting between the ‘Tragedian’ and his wife is a sort of pendant to the successful meeting of D. [Dante] and Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.”

In The Great Divorce Lewis describes the Tragedian’s wife, Sarah Smith. She had no high position or prominence in her first life, but in Heaven she is a great saint: “Love shone not from her face only, but from all her limbs, as if it were some liquid in which she had just been bathing.” She is brisk, candid, and beneficent, with a sense of humor and no sentimentality. She came all the way down from the mountains of heaven to the Valley of the Shadow of Life to meet her husband Frank and escort him to the mountains; but he refuses to go. The real inner man has been taken over by a grotesque Tragedian persona that is all manipulative ego.

Likewise, on earth Beatrice had no high position or prominence, but in heaven her face is indescribably radiant with love. She is brisk, candid, and beneficent, with no sentimentality. She came all the way down from the Empyrean to meet Dante in the Earthly Paradise (see Canto 30 of Purgatory) and escort him to Paradise; and although she rebukes him, he eagerly goes with her. In Canto 31 of Paradise he sees her back in her assigned place in the Empyrion, on a throne in the third row from the top.

Ironically, Lewis biographer A. N. Wilson has completely misread Chapters 12 and 13 of The Great Divorce. He claims “Perhaps none of Lewis’s portraits is more cruel than that of the figure of Dante himself, who … is represented as a dwarf leading the other part of himself, the Tragedian, round on a chain …” Sarah Smith is definitely a Beatrice figure, but the Tragedian is definitely not a Dante figure. He shows what Dante might have been like if he had been an idolator on his way to hell.

There is in fact a person similar to Dante in The Great Divorce, a person sometimes foolish and sometimes fearful, but always eager to learn. That person is C. S. Lewis, the narrator. And just as Dante wrote his favorite author, Virgil, into Divine Comedy to be his guide, C. S. Lewis wrote George MacDonald into The Great Divorce to be his guide.

Meeting a Mentor

Lewis and MacDonald met in Chapter 9. Lewis says “I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I first bought a copy of Phantastes had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life.”

Dante and Virgil met in Canto 1 of the Inferno. Dante said, “Are you Virgil, then? Are you that fountain which pours forth so rich a stream of words? …O light and glory of other poets! May my long years of study and great love for your poetry help me now. You are my teacher and my favorite author; you alone gave me the noble writing style that made me a successful poet.” (Shortly after Dante’s death, the author Boccaccio claimed that Dante was predicting at the beginning of his Comedy that it would become a great epic like Virgil’s Aeneid.)

Trajan

Shortly after meeting MacDonald, Lewis asked him how Ghosts could visit
Heaven and whether any of them could possibly stay. “Aye,” MacDonald answered. “Ye’ll have heard that the emperor Trajan did.”

According to a medieval tradition, after the virtuous pagan emperor Trajan spent time in Hell he had a chance to enter Heaven and stay there. Lewis would have read about this in Dante’s Comedy. In Canto 10 of Purgatory Dante recounted the kindness of Trajan to a widow, and in Canto 20 of Paradise he located Trajan in Heaven: “…the one closest to the beak consoled the widow for her son. Now he knows from his experience of this sweet life and its opposite the price of not following Christ.”

Quoting an Author

Lewis pressed MacDonald farther. “But I don’t understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”

MacDonald answered “It depends on the way ye’re using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand.”

Lewis added in parentheses, “Here he smiled at me.” This is a hint to readers that Lewis (the author of the story) was being playful when he had MacDonald say this to Lewis (the protagonist in the story). In fact, Lewis had first used the term “Deep Heaven” in his interplanetary fiction almost fifty years after MacDonald’s death.

Dante also caused one author to quote another in his fantasy. In Canto 15 of the Inferno Dante greeted his teacher Brunetto Latini. (Brunetto was a scholar and statesman who lived in Florence when Dante did, but died five years before Dante allegedly journeyed to Hell and discovered him there.) Dante said, “If I had my wish, you would not yet have left the human race. For I have in my memory, and now it goes to my heart, an image of you that is dear, kind, and fatherly, when back in the world, from time to time, you taught me how a man achieves immortality. As long as I live, it is fitting that my tongue should express my gratitude for this.” Dante is echoing these words from Brunetto’s own book Le Livre dou Tresor. So it is that Dante put one of his mentors into Hell, visited him, and affectionately quoted his own writing to him there.

The Amplitude of Heaven

In The Great Divorce and Dante’s Divine Comedy Heaven is, in Lewis’s words, “a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before.”

Lewis had entered a bus in Hell, an infinite grey town, and ascended to a country at the top of towering cliffs. There

“I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.”

“Aye, but the voyage was not mere locomotion. The bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.”

“Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town— is down in some little crack like this?”

“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one small pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”

“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”

“And yet all the loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt in heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into the great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.”

In The Divine Comedy Beatrice has led Dante up past the stars, beyond the universe, into the Empyrean. “We have ascended from the largest sphere into the Heaven of pure light—intellectual light, abounding in love; love of true goodness, abounding in ecstasy; ecstasy that surpasses every sweetness.”

Dante’s eyes are no longer impeded by distance.

There is a light on high that makes the Creator visible to the creature who finds peace only in beholding Him. That light expands into such a great circle that its circumference would be far too large to serve as a belt for the sun. It is made in its entirety by a Ray of Light, beamed down to the highest part of the First Moved, which draws its energy and power from that radiance. And like a mountainside that reflects itself in the water at its base as if to look at its rich adornment of grass and flowers, so I saw everyone who has returned up there in more than a thousand tiers that were mirrored in the light.

If the lowest row encircles such an immense light, what can the expanse of the rose’s outermost petals be! My sight did not get lost in all its breadth and height, but absorbed the full magnitude and quality of that bliss. (Neither near nor far adds or subtracts anything there, for where God rules without any intermediary the laws of nature have no relevance.)

Beatrice drew me, like one who is silent and wishes to speak, into the gold of the eternal rose that spreads itself open, row after row, and releases the fragrance of praise to the Sun that makes this perpetual spring. And she said, “Behold how great this white-robed gathering is! See how vast our city spreads!”

In conclusion, although the title of Lewis’s Cinderella is a response to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the content is inspired by Dante’s masterpiece.

This article by the late Kathryn Lindskoog was originally published in Issue #83 of The Lewis Legacy.