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Sir Archibald Explores the Hell of ‘The Great Divorce’ (LSP #212)

Sir Archibald Explores the Hell of ‘The Great Divorce’ (LSP #212) October 4, 2021

Hi and welcome back! After talking about C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce this past week, I found us some remarkable notes in a pile of rubble. They appear to be a travel journal by none other than Sir Archibald Geikie! This is the very same traveler and spiritualist named in the book. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a most interesting — and unexpected, at least to Sir Archibald — journey.

a real heaven would encourage exploration
(Stephan Ridgway, CC.) Geikie Gorge in Australia.

(Obviously, this journal doesn’t really exist, and also obviously I’ve taken some liberties with the book. Previous posts relating to C.S. Lewis and ‘The Great Divorce’: How Art Dies in Christianity; The Strawman Ghosts of ‘The Great Divorce‘; How C.S. Lewis Completed the Hell Puzzle; ‘The Great Divorce’ Horrified MeApologetics from Wishful Thinkers.; The Trilemma and the Gripping Hand. Unless stated otherwise, all page numbers quoted come from this PDF edition of the book.)

(H/t to Happy Noodle Boy for his evocative, inspirational descriptions of Darkon.)

Everyone, Meet Sir Archibald — in Real Life.

Sir Archibald Geikie was a real person. He lived from 1835-1924 and is mostly known for his exploration of Scotland. Eventually, he became a professor of geology and mineralogy — and was even knighted in 1891. A ridge on the moon, Dorsa Geikie, is named after him.

dorsa geikie
It’s the whomping big curved ridge. (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter pic; Wikipedia.) You know you’ve made it when you get a moon’s feature named after you. He’s got a lot of stuff named after him, actually.

Sir Archibald also may have dabbled in a bit of spiritualism. A page devoted to spiritualism in the UK notes that he discussed dowsing in 1899 with William Fletcher Barrett (known now primarily for his spiritualist activities). Barrett had recently published a book on the subject. That spiritualism link also tells us that Sir Archibald joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Barrett’s group, “around 1903.” Interestingly, this group’s paranormal investigations had a distinctly Christian tinge to them.

You can find a memoir of Sir Archibald’s here. It indicates great interest in local mythology.

Sir Archibald retired from professional life around 1901. He died peacefully at his home in Surrey, England. As far as reality cares, his story ends there.

Now, Let’s Meet Sir Archibald in The Great Divorce.

In The Great Divorce, the Narrator’s guide (George MacDonald, who was likewise a real minister and fantasy writer) introduces us to the book’s Sir Archibald. And this guide doesn’t approve of him at all. It’s very interesting to see how C.S. Lewis warped the character to make him sound downright whackadoodle. I couldn’t find evidence to support many of the “queer stories” mentioned below:

“There was a creature came here not long ago and went back -Sir Archibald they called him. In his earthly life he’d been interested in nothing but Survival. He’d written a whole shelf-full of books about it. He began by being philosophical, but in the end he took up Psychical Research. It grew to be his only occupation-experimenting, lecturing, running a magazine. And travelling too: digging out queer stories among Thibetan lamas and being initiated into brotherhoods in Central Africa. Proofs-and more proofs-and then more proofs again-were what he wanted.” [p. 26]

Though the spiritual world is, in this book’s cosmology, completely real, it somehow can’t be studied or analyzed using real-world measures at all.

So it’s not at all okay that Sir Archibald wanted to find some real-world support for spiritualist ideas.

This book must punish him for that great crime. And it does.

The Damnation of Sir Archibald in The Great Divorce.

Eventually, in this book’s storyline Sir Archibald died. He ended up in the hellscape urban sprawl of “the city,” which is Hell. And from there, his troubles only multiplied:

“Well, in good time, the poor creature died and came here: and there was no power in the universe would have prevented him staying and going on to the mountains. But do ye think that did him any good? This country was no use to him at all. Everyone here had ‘survived’ already. Nobody took the least interest in the question. There was nothing more to prove. His occupation was clean gone. [. . .] In the end he went away.”

The book paints this departure as a very sad thing, an indication that those in Hell decide to stay there on their own — and if their flaws are serious enough, they can’t progress to Heaven.

However, I see the matter in a very different way.

oodle-e-doo! oodle-e-doo!
Let’s fade to the Scooby Doo ending…

The Notebook of Sir Archibald Geikie.

<TRANSMISSION BEGINS>

First, I will merely report on what I found.

It’s a leatherbound notebook, about 7″ x 10″ x 1.5″ in dimensions. Tan deer hide, if I don’t miss my guess, with thick vellum-style paper. Though sturdily bound, the leather binding looks well-traveled. Excess leather on all sides fold over, allowing the precious pages inside to have complete protection from the elements. The cover is stamped in the middle with the initials: AG.

This notebook appeared in my backyard after a particularly dense fog receded. I saw a strange dog worrying at it and rescued it (the notebook, not the dog, which needed no rescuing).

At first, I thought to return the journal to its owner. Alas, once I searched the name on it, I knew that I’d never be able to accomplish that task.

The handwriting inside is quite clear and crisp, written in black fountain pen by someone who treasured both the pen and the cursive script used. Though the pages have yellowed a bit with time, the entries are quite easy to read.

Interestingly, the first note gives us the owner’s full name, Sir Archibald Geikie, and tells us that he’s had to scrounge for both pen and notebook alike — and is thankful that both came very easily to hand.

The results made for riveting reading for me.

The Hell of The Great Divorce.

Sir Archibald awoke in the city for the first time. As he came to his senses, he found himself sitting with his back against a building in a tidy alleyway. His suit looked clean and he had no injuries — not even the ones related to age.

He got plopped down, he reckoned, somewhere near city center, but he couldn’t remember getting there. He saw a few people going about their business, shopping and walking around. When he engaged them, they were quite polite to him. None of them had any idea where they were. Some had been there a very long time. They’d all been plopped down at random places near the city center just as he had. No one had any better idea than he did what this place even was.

All anybody could tell, in fact, was that this city was both endless and purely miraculous in every way. They told him with wide, wondering eyes that their physical infirmities had completely been healed upon their awakening here. They didn’t need to work, though many did anyway for the love of it, and they each chose whatever they wanted to do with their endless days.

Most amazingly of all, all anybody had to do for housing, food, clothes, and whatever else was to imagine it. And somehow, exactly what they wanted would be found nearby, just as they’d imagined it.

As soon as Sir Archibald learned of this, he immediately thought in great detail about a notebook, fountain pen, and ink. Almost immediately, he noticed a small glass pot of ink reflecting lamplight from atop some stacked boxes outside a corner shop. The ink sat atop a notebook — alongside exactly the pen he’d wanted.

Nobody was around. When he imagined coins in his pants pocket, he immediately felt their heaviness there.

So he took these three items and left behind coins enough to pay for them. Now he could document his journey through this amazing new land.

Finding the Bus Stop in The Great Divorce.

For days, Sir Archibald explored endless, barely-populated streets in an endless, early-evening smear of soft gray clouds. He perused fascinating bookshops run by cranky Irishmen and nice hippies. He ate whatever he pleased. When night fell, he slept on comfortable beds in hotel rooms that simply opened to his hand on the knob.

Eventually, Sir Archibald encountered the bus stop.

At first, it seemed like such a silly anachronism. A bus, here? Who ran it and using what money? Who rode it? When he peeked inside it, he spotted a creepy bus driver in livery.

The characters waiting to board the bus were even stranger than the bus and driver, though.

Up until then, he’d met all sorts of interesting and polite people. On one notebook page, he’d even sketched a middle-aged woman and her son at their dinner table. Some folks suffered a few rough edges, sure, but overall they were simply people.

These queued-up people, though, were vastly different. Some wore very fine clothes, some rags, but their behavior was always scary or unpleasant (or both). They fought among themselves like cats in a pillowcase, ripping at each other and hitting each other to get onto the bus.

No way, no how did Sir Archibald want to be anywhere near any of them.

Sir Archibald Wonders While He Wanders.

However, Sir Archibald still felt great curiosity about this bus, its passengers, its driver, and its destination. In the interests of exploration, then, he joined the queue.

A man ahead of him turned to see him. He was a stout fellow with an aggressive look about him. “Oh, you’re boarding as well?” he asked. At Sir Archibald’s nod, he said, “Well, just don’t get in my way.”

The stout man was about to turn away again when Sir Archibald asked where the bus was going.

Looking annoyed, the stout man assessed him. “You’re new, aren’t you,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “This bus goes to the Park.” A slight inflection on the word “park” made it seem capitalized. This must be an important park indeed, Sir Archibald realized.

“What’s there?”

“A park,” said the stout man. “Go there if you like. Or stay here. It’s all the same to me.”

That’s when Sir Archibald noticed that all of the people in queue were, at best, not completely opaque. The dimming evening light actually shone through some of them.

Far from being frightened, his senses came alive and crackling right then. He began to wonder if everyone here was, well, a ghost. But the stout man ignored him from here on out.

Riding to the Park of The Great Divorce.

Eventually, those remaining in queue (after all the fighting) boarded the bus. It drove them up a steep cliff and finally let them disembark in the aforementioned park. When Sir Archibald got out and beheld the view, it was indeed breathtakingly beautiful.

Then again, so was the city in its way. In his handsome leatherbound journal, Sir Archibald recorded all the information he had gathered so far:

  • The city had no end. If someone wanted to build a home for themselves, all they had to do was imagine it. Most denizens of this city had no trouble creating what they wanted. Many people wandered further and further away, making mansions and palaces that got grander and larger and weirder the further out they got from the city’s center.
  • Most denizens here eventually found people they’d known in life. Many chose to live near each other or even with each other. Oh, and a lot of famous people were here.
  • All the spiritualist stuff he’d heard about in life seemed to be true. Magic actually worked! Psychic stuff was real!
  • About the only risks in the city were rumored evil spirits that attacked only in the dark of night. But only the bus riders talked of this, and not even all of them believed this rumor. None of the non-bus-riding denizens in the city had mentioned it. Nobody had given him any indication that they ever feared anything in the city. Some people he met had even chosen to live under the sky and explore the city at various times.

And, most amazingly of all:

  • Abandoned houses remained where they were unless someone imagined a new place right there. Such abandoned houses contained a wealth of archaeological treasures and ephemera that normally would have dissolved to dust in the real world. Here, everything simply lingered unless overwritten. Some city-dwellers chose to explore these unruined ruins, then write about and share their discoveries with others.

The Real Hell of The Great Divorce.

At first, according to his notebook, Sir Archibald relished the idea of traveling to the mountains to see what was there. He wanted to explore it all. There wasn’t a single aspect of this place that didn’t make him curious.

But just as we saw Spirits doing in The Great Divorce, Sir Archibald’s Spirit helper rained all over that parade. This Spirit had been a professional acquaintance of his in life, one who had never approved of the Society of Psychical Research. As soon as he’d learned that Sir Archibald had landed in the city, this Spirit had paused his progress to the mountains to come back for him.

Finally, he’d help his esteemed colleague achieve true enlightenment! He’d be Sir Archibald’s mentor, rather than the second-best under him that he’d actually been in life!

And also just as we saw Spirits doing in The Great Divorce, this colleague talked down to Sir Archibald and told him that his entire life’s passions meant nothing whatsoever here. As far as the Spirits cared, this incredibly well-educated, well-informed gentleman wasn’t even a real person.

In fact, Sir Archibald could only become a real person (to them) by letting go of his desire to explore and share his wonderment with others. Those in the mountains already had all the answers they would ever need. They did not need anybody to go find any more. They didn’t even have any questions anymore.

Shocked, Sir Archibald found himself at a total loss for words for one of the only times in his life — er, afterlife. He could imagine no worse fate than this.

The Death of Curiosity in The Great Divorce.

Sir Archibald didn’t even know how long he stayed in the park, trying to reason with his Spirit colleague — and other Spirits.

But he did have time enough to notice that the only awful people he’d actually met in this afterlife were the people queueing for the bus and the Spirits. Everything these folks did or had done in the city was substandard. Their imagined houses leaked. They constantly argued among themselves.

When these Ghosts and Spirits talked about the city being miserable, it seemed to Sir Archibald that they had a mindset leaning toward the park and the journey to the mountains — even if they hadn’t yet begun that journey. They couldn’t act like just regular people anymore, and so the city had been an endless disappointment — while the denizens who’d begun the journey slowly got stripped of their humanity and could no longer respond to wonderment and curiosity.

That’s why some people got a glimpse of the city and saw nothing but mean, unimaginative, quarrelsome people, nothing but sad, leaky homes crowded together, nothing but dreary weather and scary monsters at night. This land was what people made of it. And people, being people, came in all kinds. Some needed a lot of time to heal from what their earthly lives had been like. The city gave them all the time they needed.

To say that this great explorer felt a great crash of existential horror at this point would be an understatement.

Leaving the Park.

By now, Sir Archibald had almost filled up the notebook with his observations.

After writing one last note in it — to me, as it turns out — he re-boarded the bus. He avoided even glancing at the unsettling bus driver with his eerie, toothy smile. It never reached his glassy eyes, which had unnatural crinkles around them from forcing the expression.

“You can always return,” said the bus driver to him, his voice saturated with intensity. He sounded downright ominous. “Any time you like.”

Sir Archibald sat down without answering. Out of everything he’d encountered here, that bus driver unnerved him completely. He was very glad he wasn’t the only person who returned to the bus.

Almost everyone did, in fact. As talkative as they’d been on the way to the park, they were quiet for the return trip.

A Warning to Us All.

On the way back, the bus dove down the cliff. As it flew, Sir Archibald pushed his journal out of a window. (He kept the pen and ink, of course.)

As he watched the notebook fall and vanish from view, he imagined its destination as hard as he could. He wanted it to land in some pleasant backyard, perhaps near Surrey. Near home.

He imagined hard that someone would find it and learn about the city and the weird park where smiling Spirits killed curiosity and acted like they were doing those Ghosts a big favor by eviscerating their hearts.

And most of all, he wanted the notebook’s finders to prepare. He’d continue exploring and learning, and he’d send back notebooks whenever he could. But he had a special message for those still on Earth:

Whatever the master of the mountains was, whoever he or it or she or they were, they were not humanity’s friend at all.

We needed to prepare accordingly.

<TRANSMISSION ENDS>

Christian Glurge, Defined.

We can thank Snopes for popularizing the word “glurge.” It’s such a useful word, especially when we’re dealing with treasured Christian folklore as we see in The Great Divorce.

When we talk about Christian glurge, we’re talking about a story that Christians think is amazeballs — but really isn’t at all. It’s a story that tells us, the non-Christian listeners, far more than the tellers think. And it’s telling us something really bad.

Glurge backfires hard on Christians because it reveals little details about their tribe or their beliefs that are actually horrifying and scary.

When you hear a Christian gush about having been divinely rescued from a burning building, you’re not supposed to ask about the other people who died in that fire. If a Christian gushes about some variation of the totes for realsies miracle “Angels in the Parking Lot,” we’re not supposed to think about the extremely dark implications of that story.

In a lot of ways, The Great Divorce qualifies as glurge. It’s supposed to be an allegory that solves the Problem of Hell. Instead, it just makes Heaven sound horrifying and Hell sound fascinating.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over the strange way that Hell in The Great Divorce encourages humans to be humans — while Heaven only wants robots devoid of everything that makes humanity sparkle.

(Christians have really gotta work on their threats.)

NEXT UP: Scratch a white evangelical leader, make a racist bleed. See you on Wednesday!


About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)

Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. I’m just starting us off with something, but consider the sky the limit here. We especially welcome pet pictures!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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