The Big Ghost, Thor, and the Self

The fourth chapter of C. S. Lewis’s imaginative Great Divorce features the Big Ghost, formerly a man, now an insubstantial wisp of a ghost, a transparent phantom who’s pursued by one of the solid people under whose tread the earth seemed to shake. In contrast the Big Ghost and other inhabitants of the heaven-bound bus from hell had trouble walking at all, for to their feet the blades of grass in this strange land seemed sharp as diamonds. The Big Ghost had already been told he didn’t have to leave this place, but was free to stay as long as he pleased, and his pursuer confirms it by offering to accompany him on his journey into the high country. The Big Ghost is appalled when he recognizes the bright person following him, a solid spirit jocund and established in its youthfulness, for the spirit is none but Len, who as a man had murdered their mutual acquaintance Jack. To the Big Ghost Len is still nothing but a bloody murderer, while he himself had unjustly been relegated to haunt the filthy, macabre streets of Dark Town. The Ghost is incredulous that Len is in this place of light instead of him. Len deserves punishment and should be riddled with guilt and shame, and seems entirely delivered from them, which grates against the Ghost. Len the substantial spirit’s entire orientation contrasts with that of the self-consumed, paradoxically insubstantial Ghost. The bright spirit assures the Ghost, “I do not look at myself. I have given up myself. I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what it did for me. And that was how everything began.” The event in Len’s life that had served as the catalyst for repentance and deliverance from self-consumption is, to the Ghost’s undiscerning eyes, a cause for nothing but perpetual condemnation.

The forgiven spirit isn’t interested in vindicating himself, whereas the Ghost is interested in nothing but trying to vindicate himself. “I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights.” The Ghost doesn’t see that his very effort at self-vindication is a manifestation of his focus on self that prevents him from the necessary process of losing his self in order to gain it. Comparing his behavior with those of others, he thinks he comes out smelling like a rose, and thus demands nothing but his rights, without realizing that, as the bright spirit says, “I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.” But it’s as if their frameworks of understanding are so different that the wisdom the bright spirit is trying to share doesn’t even register to the Ghost, smacking of inverted or perverted truth, as he remains caught up in indignation that he would be put below “a bloody murderer” like Len.

The irony is palpable that the insubstantial Ghost, unable to move a blade of grass even if he were to exert all his strength, continues puffing himself up. Refusing to give up his self-focus, he’s relegated to becoming ever less substantial, while insisting on the sort of chap he is, how he only wants his rights, and refusing anybody’s bleeding charity.

Elsewhere in Lewis’s writings he laments the diminution of meaning the word ‘charity’ has undergone. Traditionally it wasn’t merely benefits conferred on the less fortunate, but one of the theological virtues, an orientation toward others rather than oneself, putting the needs of others before one’s own, esteeming the other better than oneself. “Ask for the Bleeding Charity,” the spirit exhorts the Ghost. “Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.” But the Big Ghost will have none of it: “I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”

Undeterred, with mirth dancing in his eyes rather than a log of judgmentalism lodged there, the bright spirit points out that the Big Ghost, as a man, didn’t do his best and wasn’t so decent after all. “We none of us were and none of us did,” but he assures the Ghost it doesn’t have to matter now. But once more, the offer of hope sounds to the Big Ghost like nothing but condemnation from a worse sinner, and he won’t countenance it.

In a sense the bright spirit admits it’s worse than that, that his murder of Jack wasn’t the worst thing he himself had done during his life—that he had murdered the Big Ghost in his heart for years while they lived as men. This is why he was sent to him—to ask for forgiveness and to be his servant as long as he needed one, longer if the Ghost pleased. The Ghost bristles at any suggestion of his own shortcomings, insisting they’re his own private affairs, to which the bright spirit replies, “There are no private affairs,” we’re all tied in an interlocking web of mutuality; an insight lost because of the Ghost’s inflated sense of self.

Relishing the chance to refuse the offer, content with his diminished state, insistent on his rights, the Big Ghost tragically chooses hell over heaven. Unwilling to give up his life, he loses it, still unable to bend a blade of grass for being so diminished and insubstantial.

And here I can’t help but contrast the Big Ghost with Thor. In the first movie, the initially brash and arrogant Thor is cast out of Asgard and stripped of his powers, and subsequently unable to lift his hammer, no matter how hard he tries. He’s like the Big Ghost, too weak and diminished to move a small stone or leaf after disembarking from the bus. When Thor was banished, his father, before casting the hammer to earth as well, had said, “Let him who is worthy possess the power of Thor.” And at the climax of the film, a matured, heroic Thor had now become willing to give up his life to save others. He offered his own life to spare the rest, and then, after a moment when it looked like his brother might relent, Thor is killed. And it was then that the hammer, miles away, took off and flew in a fiery trajectory into the hand of a revived Thor. Having given up his life, he found it. Having been unable to so much as move the hammer, now he could wield it with powerful force. It’s a great scene, resonating with a universal truth: life is found when we’re willing to lose it.

Of course Thor is no real god. As Captain America says, after all, “There’s only one God, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” The essence of salvation, on a Christian picture, is not about obtaining a ticket to heaven, saving your cosmic rear end from the flames, but about deliverance from the tyranny of self, from a hell locked from the inside, from sufferings intrinsically connected to the inevitable product of consumption with self. To be saved to the full is to be made able to love God and others with all of our hearts, to find deliverance from an inward orientation that forever blocks us from the life that only comes when we’re willing to give up our own. It’s not about being good enough, but realizing that we’re none of us very decent, and we can do nothing to purchase this life; only receive bloody charity from nail-pierced hands.

Image: By Mårten Eskil Winge - 3gGd_ynWqGjGfQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,