One of the most memorable scenes in The Great Divorce, and the only one where a shade accepts grace and enters heaven, features a horse. At the end of chapter 11, the Ghost enslaved to the lizard Lust desperately desires to be free of it but just as desperately clings to his life-long companion. The only escape is a clean break—killing the beast. But little does the Ghost realize that the lizard’s death will bring them both life, transforming the man into a new being, and the rapacious reptile into a glorious new animal:
“So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks … What stood beside me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and trees dindled.”
The two breathe into each other’s nostrils. The man climbs on the horse’s back, and “there was riding if you like!” the narrator exclaims, as the earth rejoices and the pair gallops off together into true heaven.
This isn’t the only place horses appear in The Great Divorce. In the next vignette, Sarah Smith of Golders Green is accompanied by a retinue of animals, including a herd of horses. Our narrator is confused by their presence, but his guide George MacDonald explains the reason why they’re there:
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
Many of Lewis’s works include animals of some kind, but equines, and especially horses, seem to hold a special place in his imaginative world. Even children reading the Chronicles of Narnia can see this, from Strawberry/Fledge in The Magician’s Nephew to the donkey, unicorn, centaur, and horses in The Last Battle (not to mention the protagonists Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy!). When I was a child reading the Chronicles, Lewis’s depictions of horses were some of my favorite parts of the books. As I grew up and moved on to his work for older readers, and when I became a horse owner and equestrian myself, I started wondering about Lewis’s personal relationship with horses. Did he ever own one? If not, did he have the opportunity to ride, or at least to spend significant time with them? How did he come to write about them so accurately and sympathetically?
At some point I heard that Lewis gave his stepson Douglas Gresham a pony, and I decided to write and ask him about it. Douglas very graciously answered my questions in a delightful series of emails that we exchanged over the last few months.
Douglas’s “pony” was actually a small horse, what’s called a Cob, and her name was in fact Cobber. “She was solid, strong, stubborn, hard-mouthed and flighty, a real handful for a child to ride, and I loved her. We also used her to pull a plough for our vegetable garden,” Douglas wrote. When I asked where she lived, he told me that “she had a stable (built by Fred Paxford our Man-of-all-work) at The Kilns. It was located about 50 yards straight out from the back door.” His step-father “liked the horse and often fed her titbits of this and that.” Douglas had her for about four years, but when his attention turned to motorbikes, she was sold, although he owned and worked with many other horses later in his life, and he remains a great horse lover to this day.
The other significant memory that Douglas has regarding his stepfather and horses is the horror he felt about their deaths on the battlefields of World War I, which he had seen firsthand as a combatant. Millions of horses were conscripted into the fighting, and few of them made it out alive. Their story has been told most famously in the book, Broadway play, and movie War Horse.
Lewis’s love of horses appears in his letters, and they supply some background illuminating how he turns them into such potent images in his books. For instance, when he learns that his dear friend Arthur Greeves has taken up riding, he writes
“The news of your learning to ride was surprising, amusing (as you foresaw!) and on the whole good … What would attract me the most about riding, viz. the unity of man and beast, is, I suppose, largely spoiled by having to use hired horses. But if you find you like it I suppose you could easily afford a horse of your own … Certainly I should enjoy very much strolling round with you to visit it in its stable.” (November 5, 1933)
We don’t know what happened with Arthur’s riding lessons, but we do know that the anticipation Lewis voices in the last sentence of the letter was fulfilled in his enjoyment of visiting Cobber with Douglas decades later at his own stable at The Kilns. In this letter we also see what may be the first articulation of an idea that becomes important in his books, the “unity of man and beast.” Lewis is right about that experience being spoiled by “hired horses.” He knows that horses are not motorbikes or even livestock. As the horse-human relationship grows and deepens over time, so does the quality, and thus the enjoyment, of the rides they share together. In a letter to Sarah Neyland, Lewis writes,
“I particularly envy you having half a pony and learning to ride. I can’t, but I love the sight and sound and smell and feel of a horse and v. much wish that I could. I’d sooner have a nice, thickset, steady-going cob that knew me & that I knew how to ride than all the cars and private planes in the world.” (January 16, 1954)
These letters set the stage for how he uses the archetype of the horse in his writings, with the union and harmony of horse and rider being central to his purpose. The purest mythological expression of this idea is the centaur, which appears not only in his fantasies like the Chronicles of Narnia, but other places, too, e.g., the book Miracles. This book is very much concerned with the relationship between God and the physical world, or Nature. When Lewis uses equine imagery, it almost always represents Nature in some form, and often the human body, as it does in Miracles chapter 14. He writes there,
“The spirit was once not a garrison, maintaining its post with difficulty in a hostile Nature, but was fully ‘at home’ with its organism, like a king in his own country or a rider on his own horse—or better still, as the human part of a Centaur was ‘at home’ with the equine part.”
Remember the Ghost and the lizard in the Great Divorce: the two of them were at war, but the new man and his heavenly mount became a perfect union. After he watches the pair gallop away, the narrator writes that the earth sang because “the Nature or Arch-nature of that land rejoiced to have been once more ridden, and therefore consummated, in the person of the horse.”
Such language might make some modern readers uncomfortable. It’s hierarchical and thus completely out of fashion. But as Lewis himself would say, the question of whether or not it’s in fashion is not the same question as whether or not it’s true. From a practical horsemanship standpoint, it’s a truism. Horses live in herds with distinct hierarchies, and each animal knows his or her own place, with the lead mare at the top, and every horse’s position assigned in descending order from there.
When you take a horse out of the herd, the rider has to become the lead mare, taking total control of her mount. If that doesn’t happen, things become very dangerous very quickly because the horse is anxious, uncertain, and afraid. If the horse is allowed to be in charge in that emotional state, both people and horses will suffer. In the same way, we humans must be in control of our natures, our appetites, from our sexual lives to how we spend money, because if we aren’t their masters, we will surely be their slaves, or, to return to an equine metaphor, get bucked off and find ourselves face down in the dirt.
Full mastery of the unruly horses of our nature is impossible in this lifetime, so we look forward to perfectly lovely rides in the resurrection. Lewis’s harmonious horses can only be heavenly horses. Consciously or unconsciously, in describing them he draws upon thousands of years of precedent from the Bible and the Greco-Roman classics that he knew and loved so well. In those texts earthly equines appear most often in the context of war, but all of the cultures that ringed the Mediterranean also had a tradition of divine horses. For example, the biblical prophet Elijah is carried to heaven in a chariot drawn by fiery heavenly horses. William Blake alludes to this story from 2 Kings in his poem Jerusalem (which, set to music, has become almost a British anthem):
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
In the Book of Revelation, the resurrected Jesus returns to earth riding a white horse, accompanied by an army of angels similarly mounted. The color is significant. The Ghost-Become-New-Man’s horse in The Great Divorce was also “silvery white.” White horses were prized in the Mediterranean world, and they were especially associated with kings and royalty. According to the Roman writer Virgil, white was the color of victory, so it isn’t surprising that victorious generals rode, or were pulled in chariots by, white horses when they celebrated their triumphs, the ancient equivalent of ticker-tape parades honoring the returning heroes. White horses were also closely associated with the gods, which may be why that color of horse was the equine sacrificial offering of choice.
Another sort of horse Lewis and ancient authors jointly favored was the winged variety. It, too, was closely connected with the gods and with life after death. According to the Greek writer Hesiod, Pegasus flew “to the deathless gods: and he dwells in the house of Zeus and brings to wise Zeus thunder and lightning.” By virtue of his wings, Pegasus is a natural for bridging the gap between heaven and earth. He becomes a psychopomp, a creature who leads the soul to heaven. Even some ancient Jews adopted this use of the symbol, if we may judge from the two pegasi that decorate the Jewish Catacomb Vigna Randanini in Rome (picture from E. R. Goodenough).
Of course, in his writings Lewis didn’t represent the winged horse simply as the soul’s guide. Christians reject a Platonic dualism of soul and body. How could they be dualistic about them, given Christ’s own resurrection? Lewis’s winged horses serve to illustrate the idea, as he wrote in Mere Christianity, that
“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature … it is not mere improvement but Transformation.”
Eastern Orthodox Christians call this transformation of humanity into the image of God theosis. One step along the way to that blessed state is an attempt to deny the baser aspects of human nature through fasting and abstinence, especially during the season of Lent. Those Christians, Orthodox or not, who are keeping Lent and looking forward to Easter might find this final paragraph in Miracles on heavenly horses to be good spiritual food for the remainder of the journey:
“To shrink back from all that can be called Nature into negative spirituality is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride. There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room (more room than most of us like) for abstinence and renunciation and mortifying our natural desire. But behind all asceticism the thought should be, ‘Who will trust us with the true wealth if we cannot be trusted even with the wealth that perishes?’ Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot control even an earthly body? These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him?”
“The Heavenly Horses of C. S. Lewis” is part of a Monday series on The Great Divorce here on A Pilgrim in Narnia.
Guest blogger Leslie Baynes is associate professor of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism at Missouri State University. She rides a spunky bay Arabian named Romeo. Though not a winged horse, Romeo likes to pretend that he is.
What is your experience with horses, or horses in literature? Feel free to share in the comments below!
© Leslie Baynes, Missouri State University