How is one conveyed from hell—or from earth—to the celestial city—in literature? How are characters transported to heaven from, say, a dim, empty-seeming, labyrinthine town? And (since this is a Maine-dedicated weblog), how would a mill-worker get to heaven from the wooded mountains of Maine? Spun off an open invitation to blog about C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, this post seeks a route on which Maine might join up with CSL’s great bus ride.
But first a bit of variation on this theme of transport. Sixty years before Mark Twain sent his first person Captain Stormfield to heaven aboard a comet cum steamship, Nathaniel Hawthorne used the template of John Bunyan’s footsore progress to send himself comfortably toward his celestial destination on the railroad. “The engine looked more like a sort of mechanical demon that would hurry us to the infernal regions than a laudable contrivance for smoothing our way to the Celestial City.” (Hawthorne, “The Celestial Railroad”) The engineer of Hawthorne’s train is apparently Apollyon, who kept the Castle of Destruction in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
image source: http://www.kidsdiscover.com/spotlight/trains-for-kids/
In C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce the conveyance from hell to heaven is a flying bus. The features of its operator are a far cry from that of Apollyon. “I could see nothing in the countenance of the driver [. . . except] that he had a look of authority and seemed intent on carrying out his job.” (TGD, 1996 p.15) He is one of Lewis’s “solid people” doing the work they’ve got to do. In charge here, the bus driver comes from heaven itself, not the infernal regions suggested by Hawthorne’s engineer. In his railway carriage, Hawthorne had seated himself comfortably with Mr. Smooth-it-away for a guide. Lewis was jostled by passengers fancying arrogance while complaining of the driver’s steady competent look.
In Twain’s Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven readers are traveling as spirit through space along with Stormfield until hitching a ride on the comet/steamship. As Stormfield approaches the ship, “the captain of the comet had been rousted out, and he stood there in the red glare for’ard, by the mate, in his shirt-sleeves and slippers, his hair all rats’ nests and one suspender hanging, and how sick those two men did look!” This captain ordered Satan’s cargo overboard to wait for the next steamship (apparently to make room for Stormfield). When Satan’s cargo fell, “it wiped out a considerable raft of stars just as clean as if they’d been candles and somebody blowed them out.” Twain’s story carries the “backwoods” fantastic fairly even handedly, balancing it with the steamship’s 19thC applied science.
Going forth in the 1980s Maine wilderness, here’s millwright Balder Simon on a celestial journey toward his missing son. Disconcerted, he is discovering that his route lies through nether regions:
A light in the darkness, coming off his left shoulder, stirred the corner of his eye and he turned to see something moving through the dark, an orange gleam hardly piercing through gloom. It increased and he heard the rapid chugging of diesel cylinders. The ferry hove into view. It went by and stood idling, and Balder saw the ferryman’s strange dark head, with his old-time engineer’s cap, craning out the cab. His eyes were lit with fire, but the look on his face was that of a wild uncomprehending innocence. There was nothing personal in the look but a fanatical unswerving endurance in the pursuit of duty.
Balder stared at him. The ferry operator’s burning gaze was on the moorings below, near the river’s verge. Balder had not noticed the moorings before. The human-inhuman operator cast the hawser over one mooring and called out in his highly stressed way.
” ‘Board— the Inferno!! ‘Board for the Inferno!!”
On these four engines of transport, moving from the 19th through the 20th century, we move from one world to the next. Each is piloted by one whose job it is to oversee the craft and engines of this special journey. On journeys ventured afoot, the personal is highly evident in this progress. But I wonder, will future literary journeys go a-droning? No doubt some creative soul might fabricate such a journey. Would anything be lost in the adventure, if so? It’s certain that energy will be required, but the person as pilot is important to me.
Earlier, in the late 1600s, another pilgrim began his own journey to “The Celestial City” under his own power, on his two feet. While being told as a dream (like Lewis’s as seen at its end), Bunyan’s tale of Christian is like Hawthorne’s dreamy story—an allegory. Twain’s story and The Great Divorce are both metaphorical in nomenclature, tone and temper, giving them more latitude for interpretation. Energy consumed to get our heroes to their celestial destinations in these modern stories are fossil fuels, but medieval pilgrims consumed meat and drink to give energy, and keep them walking toward their destinations. It is good to wonder, Where is the energy coming from to go on all these journeys? Moderns are conveyed in a network of transport fashioned from underground materials (iron and other ores). They are powered by energy delved from below. Fossil fuel, as raw-material, was compressed of living matter eons ago. More might be said of these energetic metaphors, and the minuteness of which things are made. But to shorten…. Upon consideration of scripture, we are understood to be moving and fueled by biological life—a form transubstantiated from God’s own Being. Examples of supportive biblical passages include Christ’s crucifixion from world’s foundation, and our own individual and moving existence in this Personal God.
If the beginning of creation was founded in One Person’s suffering, sadness, desolation and loss, we may truly see exquisite parallels in our own journeys. Many afterlife literary stories, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell,” begin in the sort of dark, desolate and isolated wanderings with which C.S. Lewis begins his celestial-journey dream. I’m not sure I can carry this essay’s metaphoric theme — transport to the celestial destination — much further … except to say Balder’s Wilderness may not be unlike that of Lewis’s The Great Divorce as a wonder-tale conveyance to an imagined otherworld. “Let there be light!!” The stories of our real lives are part of the commanded Being Light.
“The Celestial Railroad” http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/celest.htm
Balder’s Wilderness here and at other online venues. Or order at your local independent bookstore.