An Unpublished Foreword to The Great Divorce

great divorceC.S. Lewis’ haunting vision of the afterlife, The Great Divorce, began its publication run 70 years ago today. I was once pressed by Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins to name what I thought was Lewis’ best fiction. Lewis himself preferred Perelandra, his atmospheric Miltonian interplanetary space fantasy that is part of the Ransom Cycle. Many Lewis aficionados say that the Narnian author was at his best in Till We Have Faces. It really is a beautiful and sophisticated book, the retelling of a Greek myth to capture the complex reality of self-sacrificial love. It certainly hits some literary heights.

My answer to the challenge was, however, The Great Divorce (1944). This little philosophical novella should be read with other period pieces like:

  • George Orwell’s anti-communist allegory, Animal Farm (1945)
  • Albert Camus’s absurdist philosophical novel, L’Etranger (1942), translated The Stranger or The Outsider
  • William Faulkner’s wilderness story, “The Bear” (1942)
  • Jean-Paul Satre’s existential novella, La Nausée (Nausea, 1938)
  • or even pieces like Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphesus or The Transformation, 1915) or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)

Like each of these pieces, The Great Divorce tells a story we can enjoy on its own while teasing out great questions of life, the universe, and everything. Most good books do this anyway, but the art of creating the philosophical novel is one that intrigues me. I tried it last year during the 3 Day Novel Contest with my “Wish for a Stone.” It is a novella asking the question, “if you could be given what you want most in the world right now, would you take it?” The answer, it seems, is more complex than you might think. Good philosophical novels do this–suggest that the answer is more complex than we thought. In a review of The Great Divorce in The Times Literary Supplement (Jan 25, 1946), the reviewer wrote:

“The book succeeds because its readers will forget that it is a work of art, and remember not so much what happened in it as what it made them think…. Those who find themselves in agreement with the arguments put up by the Ghosts for not being saved will be unlikely to finish the book” (see Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide, 288-9).

All of C.S. Lewis’ work is really philosophical; even Narnia is rich not just in the texture of character and story, but rich in the questions of personal exploration. Although Lewis quipped that 90% of reviewers of Out of the Silent Planet (1938) missed the Christian undertones, there was no mistaking his breakout book, The Screwtape Letters (1941-42). There is nothing subtle about Screwtape’s content, and it remains one of Lewis’ more famous books.

These witty and profound notes of (anti-)spiritual theology were originally published in serial form The Guardian, an Anglican newspaper, one each week throughout much of 1941. An idea that occurred to Lewis in the early 1930s, that those condemned to hell get a vacation to heaven from time to time, had simmered in Lewis’ imagination all these years. In 1944, he began working it out in earnest, and had completed it by the end of the summer, reading parts of to the Inklings (see J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters).

On Nov 3, 1944, this ad appeared in The Guardian:

Nov 3 1st GD ad croppedIn this very textual weekly newspaper, the Letters to the Editor section was one of the more exciting features. It’s where educated readers were battling out important ideas in the Church of England at the time, like women in ministry, service to war orphans, international communication, the church in an emerging global market, and the relative merits of organ music. It’s no surprise, then, that the very popular C.S. Lewis–BBC commentator and Christian bestseller–was advertised in such a prominent place.

based on Great Divorce LewisYou’ll note that the name is different–I’ve blogged about “The Many Names of the Great Divorce.” Despite the relatively banal name, “Who Goes Home?”, the serial was fairly popular. When it came out as a book, Lewis added a preface putting the story in some context. But, as in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis begins the original series in an obscure way:

I seemed to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street. Evening was just closing in and it was raining. I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight. Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.

Notice how indefinite this description is. It seems like a bus line, time seems to have fallen still. It is neither evening nor daytime, neither dark nor light. Lewis begins by disorienting the reader, and soon we are lifting up from this grey town into the boundless unknown above the greasy rain.

great-divorce5It is no surprise, then, that the editor gives some context for the reader. This editorial note, then, is one of the earliest forewords among C.S. Lewis’ work. Because it has only been published in this now defunct and relatively unknown Anglican journal, I thought it was worth printing the editorial in full. Any reader of C.S. Lewis will see immediately how different the Editor’s tone and quality is from Lewis’ own. Lewis is certainly more equipped to deal with a diverse and diversifying England than is the Editor. But it gives a peculiar context to The Great Divorce that many would never catch: it is being read by young people engaged in a quiet revolution of faith in a decidedly post-Christian culture. And note that there is no mention of the war, despite it being far from over. For fans of The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis researchers, it is a fascinating read.

Nov 10 GD intro-preface1In this number we are introducing a new serial by Mr. C.S. Lewis entitled Who Goes Home? or The Grand Divorce. It is four years since we began to print The Screwtape Letters, and we know to-day the service this remarkable work has rendered to the cause of Christianity. We are no less confident than we were when we began to publish the Screwtape series that we have the privilege of offering to readers of The Guardian a work of originality and power; and we have no doubt that it will later, in book form, carry its message to many thousands of minds to which a Church newspaper can never make any approach. Mr. Lewis among many qualities has one which in itself would suffice to account for the great influence of his writings. He knows what it means to be a Christian. In his fantasies, as in all his books, we see the implications of our faith set before us with robust imagination and relentless logic. This, we believe, is one of the reasons why his books may often be seen in the hands of the young man lunching in a London café, or tucked under the keyboard of a typewriter in the Foreign Office. They give us Christianity and not a conventional façade. The best of us do welcome that and, the younger we are, the more we like it.

For Christianity is no longer a façade—a decorative addition which gives tone to a worldly existence. That role, perhaps, has now passed over to the agnostic camp. Christianity now is realistic, or it is nothing. It still seems, no doubt, a paradox to many worthy, intelligent people on the pagan side. But to the man who has read and inwardly digested the Gospels, or has imbibed the meaning of Mr. Lewis`s works, it is the materialist whose position is paradoxical.

Nov 10 GD intro-preface2No doubt we have a long way to go. There are still a lot of us who try to get the best of both worlds. And that is not wholly a legacy from the past. But others are at last, although late, beginning to know that to be a freeman of the City of God is far removed from the freedom of a city of this world. These are testing times, and we can no longer be content with a passive, self-centred Christianity. We have to undergo a rebirth and become a member of a divine fellowship which carries the renunciation of much which we had thought we desired. We are still very tolerant of paganism, and the pagan is still very tolerant of us. What John Keble said in the Assize Sermon in 1833 (it appears in another column) is far more true to-day. We have even become to-day unconsciously tolerant of things which are definitely hostile to the faith—things which Keble`s England would not have tolerated. Weekly journals are widely read which bristle with false philosophy. Plays are exhibited on screen and acclaimed by the best critics which contain an affront to Christian feeling. Yet we have not heard of any public protest in any theatre. We seem to be unsure of ourselves.

Still, there are signs of change. The young people who are reading Mr. Lewis are also thinking and discussing. And some are beginning as adults to acquire in a new way the blessed insight which to others was only part of an inherited tradition. They are veritably finding the eternal, and in doing so they are learning a new relationship to that which is particular and fleeting.

Nov 10 TOCNote: I have not changed punctuation or broken up the long paragraphs. I have attempted to find the copyright holder (it is expired in Canada) and was not successful. The Grand Divorce originally ran from Nov 10, 1944-Apr 13, 1945. In many places the chapters are broken up in odd space to fit the column space. Original readers were certainly left hanging on some cliffs!

I will be blogging The Great Divorce over the next six months, but not every Monday. I look forward to your comments and will take offers of guest blogs for this 70th anniversary series.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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34 Responses to An Unpublished Foreword to The Great Divorce

  1. You are SUPER good at this sort of thing! Thank you!


  2. WriteFitz says:

    Well that editor’s note would be very apropos for this day and age! Truly, nothing is new under the sun…


  3. robstroud says:

    Thank you very, very much or sharing that brilliant review of Lewis’ work. The writer was both astute and prescient.
    “We are still very tolerant of paganism, and the pagan is still very tolerant of us.”
    Quite true when he wrote the introduction, and you feel clearly his wise warning that the truce was eroding. No such toleration exists today, where it seem the (societally triumphant) pagans feel they must purge every Christian voice from the public forum.


  4. paulfford says:

    This is fascinating. Thank you for your sleuthing!


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  8. Patrick Wagner says:

    “if you could be given what want most in the world right now, would you take it?” The answer, it seems, is more complex than you might think.” I think Mr Lewis would answer this question with a resounding “NO”. I would agree with him because, like him, in my longing for God, it is God I desire, not the cessation of my longing. (see Surprised by Joy)Thanks for raising this interesting philosophical question.


    • So, you wouldn’t want God if you could have God right now?
      It’s a curious loop for me!


      • Patrick Wagner says:

        The desire itself – my desire for God Himself, is, I think God’s love for me, it is Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in me confirming that I am “in Him” and He is “in me” and, as much as I desire Him, I can never receive all of who and what God is, not in this life or in eternity.


  9. Patrick Wagner says:

    … or in Mr Lewis’s brilliant way of putting it – “Unsatisfied desire is in itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” [Surprised by Joy ]


    • This is where I’m caught: Is it always unsatisfied, this desire? Is the not-having essential, and the having unnecessary? If so, doesn’t his argument for God based on our need for God fall apart?
      Lewis says that we know humans are made for food, not because food is available at hand, but because there is a food-space in us. So humans are made for God because there is a God-space. But if we never are intended to “have” God–for God to fill that space–how can that need for God tell us anything?


      • Patrick Wagner says:

        I apologize in advance to Mr Lewis here, also to you, because I do not for one minute think that I am capable of speaking on behalf of his intellectual genius and his spiritual logic. These are the results of my logic and my personal thoughts which affirm and confirm the thoughts and logic of many others I have read and listened to on the subject. Please feel free to disregard them entirely if you feel they do not offer you any answers to your questions.

        Our desire for God to fill the God-space which He created (the “not-having God” in us) is essential if we are truly seeking Him and as far as I can tell it will always remain unsatisfied until we see Him face to face and not through a glass darkly. Even after this I am not sure it can ever be satisfied.
        The “having” that initial unfilled God-space in us is as necessary and as essential as “not having” it filled is, because without His unfulfilled desire in us we would be able to, without Him or with Him, initiate and fulfil most of our own desires.
        That unquenched God-space is God confirming that God always desired us first and that, because He is God, no matter how hard we attempt to get more of Him we will never be able to accommodate all of Him.

        Before we can have Him begin, or continue, to fill the God-space in us though, we must first completely surrender our desire (that God-space) for Him to Him. If our desire for Him is based primarily on “our desire for Him” rather than on “His desire for us” then, not only do we not have He who would satisfy the desire, we also have the wrong motive for it being filled, a self-centred rather than a God-centred motive, for desiring Him.


        • I think you have the logic right, or at least the basic outline of Lewis’ logic. I’m not sure what that means, ultimately. And I still think it defeats his argument from desire–the idea that we were made for God because all human wanting is a demonstration of a “standard”–a reality outside of themselves. That argument depends on possible or ultimate filling of desire.
          Perhaps this is a question of the face to face…. I cannot imagine fulfilled desire, or even human living in an unchanging reality. I just don’t know.


          • Patrick Wagner says:

            I am with you there, I cannot imagine fulfilled desire either. Perhaps this is why – “If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks. They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away. The initiative lies all on your side. They cannot either help or hinder. But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts. That is a bit different from studying rocks. The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you. Unless you keep very quiet, they will. There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side. Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person. If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him. You have to win his confidence. In this case the initiative is equally divided – it takes two to make a friendship. When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And in fact He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others- not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one.” [Mere Christianity]

            Liked by 1 person

          • Patrick Wagner says:

            I came across this quote which I thought you might appreciate…… “The problem for us is not – are our desires satisfied or not? – the problem is – how do we know what we desire?” [Slavo Zizak]

            Liked by 1 person

            • He is quite a provocative thinker, Zizak. I like his way of looking at film, but I haven’t played within him a lot.
              On desire.. are we all walking around in clouds? Like, do we really know what we want?


              • Patrick Wagner says:

                My own personal conclusion, for what its worth, is that Zizak is saying what James says about “desires” in James 4:1-4. God wants to give you what YOU desire, but, as James and Zizak point out, we are desiring the wrong things. God wants you to desire what HE desires. And HE desires that you desire Him. So, yes, I think that before you desire what He desires, your desires are probably walking around on clouds.

                It goes back to our discussion about unsatisfied desire being more desirable than any satisfaction and I don’t know if you have come across this quote before?
                Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”
                “Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.
                “You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.
                Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”
                Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”
                Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends:
                “Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.”[Zen Flesh, Zen Bones]

                But this, and the other quotes, say to me that if your desire is “the pearl of great price”, the “Kingdom of God”, Christ Himself, – ie.what GOD wants you to desire – and your living is devoted to fulfilling it (the WAY), then your desire will be fulfilled to the degree that God knows you are able to handle properly at any point in time (the LIFE). You are then practising how to live with God now, and at every moment, and by the time you are confronted with eternity you will not turn your back on what you do not know, you will desire even more to live more closely with Him. The reality of the TRUTH (Christ Himself) will be replaced with a desire even greater, Jesus Himself (eternal WAY,TRUTH and LIFE)

                Liked by 1 person

              • A good parable. With Lewis, all desires were reflective of God’s joy, but they can be easily confused. What did he say in “the Weight of Glory”–here we are messing about with work and sex and food. We aren’t over-indulging; we are actually malnourished when it comes to desire. Something like that.


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  12. Tom Campbell says:

    I am working on a talk at a local church on the subject of the Great Divorce. I was wondering if you knew when Lewis started to write the series and whether he had completed it by the time the first episode was published in The Guardian.



    • Hi Tom, I am snow-stayed in another province. I have all that info at home. Email me at junkola [at] gmail [dot] com.
      Meanwhile, he had finished ch. 9 by May 25th or thereabouts. It was typed and sent to the Guardian by the end of July I think, so certainly finished early.
      Like Screwtape, both serials were complete 3months before first publication.
      You can find the original schedule here:


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  14. Patrick Wagner says:

    I read this the other day, and after reading about how you fell into C S Lewis I thought you might enjoy reading it at least as much as I enjoyed your personal journey.
    “He is quick, thinking in clear images;
    I am slow, thinking in broken images.
    He becomes dull, trusting in his clear images;
    I become sharp, mistrusting in my broken images.
    Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
    Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
    Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
    Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
    When the fact fails him, he questions his sense;
    When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
    He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
    I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
    He in a new confusion of his understanding;
    I in a new understanding of my confusion.[“BROKEN IMAGES ”by ROBERT GRAVES]


    • Thanks for sharing Patrick. It took me a couple of reads through to see that the hero is “I”. There is a value in broken images. Is it the way the universe is built: that in all things there is a possibility of better from bent?


      • Patrick Wagner says:

        “God maked grace out of our grit, salvation out of our sin. We are saved, ironically, not by doing it right as much by sufferering of having done it wrong.” [Richard Rohr) – an American Franciscan monk made a similar observation. But I like your way of putting it as well, “better from bent”.

        Liked by 1 person

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