As George MacDonald walks with the Narrator, the Narrator sees light flashing in the trees, as if reflected from a river (hence his question at the end of Chapter 11). But then, the Narrator sees that the light is coming from a big group of Spirits. The Spirits sing music so beautiful that, if the Narrator could only have written it down, no one would ever get sick again.
There are several points in the novel (including this passage) when the Narrator claims to experience something so beautiful or sublime that he’s unable to convey it literarily. Lewis again delves into the poetic and fantastical here, reminding us that Heaven is beyond human conception—while books can be valuable Christian teaching tools, the best they can do is point to something beyond themselves.
The Narrator sees a lady, and realizes that the Spirits are singing and dancing to celebrate her. The lady is beautiful—MacDonald explains that her name is Sarah Smith. In the afterlife, Sarah has a large “family,” because on Earth, she was kind and gracious to many different people, even people whom she barely knew.
Sarah Smith is perhaps the most virtuous character we’ve met thus far: she’s warm, loving, and seemingly capable of infinite kindness. Sarah is also a notable departure from the other female characters in the book: unlike the previous women we’ve seen, she’s not complaining or selfish.
As Sarah approaches the Narrator and MacDonald, she stares off into the distance. Following her gaze, the Narrator sees two old ghosts, one very tall and theatrical looking, like a Tragedian, the other small, like a Dwarf. As the two ghosts approach Sarah, the Narrator notices that the Dwarf is carrying a chain that’s attached to the Tragedian’s neck. Sarah greets the Dwarf as Frank, and says, “Forgive me.” Strangely, it is the Tragedian who replies to Sarah. The Tragedian says, “We all make mistakes,” in an annoying theatrical tone. The Tragedian claims that he has spent years worrying about Sarah, thinking that she’s “here alone, breaking your heart about me.” Sarah replies that Frank must never think such things again—now they’re together again.
Like many of the sinners and damned souls in the novel, Frank has a “divided nature”—his being seems split between two figures, the Dwarf and the Tragedian. The Tragedian symbolizes the theatrical, artificial sadness that Frank tried to project during his life, making others feel guilty and deriving pleasure from their guilt. Even in the afterlife, Frank is still pretending to be hurt by Sarah’s words in order to make Sarah pity him—but of course, in the Valley, it’s clear that Frank is just pretending.
As Sarah smiles at the Dwarf, the ghost becomes more solid. The Dwarf asks, “You missed me?” in a small, ugly voice. Sarah replies, “Dear, you will understand about that very soon.” The Dwarf and Tragedian say to each other, in unison, “You’ll notice she hasn’t answered our question.” The Narrator begins to understand what’s going on: the small and tall ghosts are two halves of the same human being; “the remains of what had once been a person.”
Clearly, Sarah can now see through Frank’s theatrical, self-pitying behavior: she’s perfectly aware that Frank is just pretending to be offended in a vain attempt to hurt her. Because Sarah is so honest and frank with Frank, she succeeds in getting through to him—thus, the Dwarf momentarily sets aside his theatrical manner and asks if Sarah missed him.
Sarah tells the Dwarf that he can be happy now that he’s in the afterlife. The Dwarf becomes more solid for a moment, but then mutters, “We thought she’d remember and see how unselfish we’d been. But she never did.” Then, the Dwarf rattles the chain, causing the Tragedian to say, theatrically, “I can’t forget it!”
This passage shows Frank fighting his own natural desire to be happy. In the end, Frank’s desire to make Sarah feel guilty wins out over his desire for happiness and truth.
Sarah tries to explain herself to the Dwarf. She claims that she’s in love with the ghost—and with everything else. She didn’t truly love the ghost in “the old days,” although she thought she did. The Dwarf asks, dramatically, “You need me no more?” Sarah smiles beautifully and explains that, in the afterlife, there is no such thing as need—and as a result, she and Frank can truly love one another. The Tragedian overreacts to this news, claiming that he wishes Sarah were dead at his feet. In response to the Tragedian’s actions, Sarah can only laugh. She stares directly at the Dwarf, and in spite of himself, the Dwarf begins to laugh, too. The Dwarf begins to get even bigger and more solid.
The Dwarf knows, deep down, that he’s being ridiculous. He’s just pretending to be offended in order to make Sarah feel bad—even the Narrator can see it. (Part of Lewis’s project is exaggerating and literalizing certain sins and flaws so that they become more clear to his readers.) At the end of this section, the Dwarf finally seems to give in (if only momentarily) to his desire to be happy in Heaven—it’s suggested that laughter, like fear, can sometimes help someone step outside of themselves.