The bus flies onward, over a large cliff. Slowly the bus descends, until it lands on the cliff. The Narrator and his fellow passengers get off the bus, and find that they’re near a river, with green trees and thick grass. The Narrator has a sense of being in a “larger space” than he’s ever been in before. He feels free, but also frightened—a feeling that he finds nearly impossible to put into words.
It’s noteworthy that the Narrator feels fear while contemplating his own freedom. One of the novel’s major themes is the difficulty of exercising free will: as we’ll learn, humans can choose to love God, or they can choose to turn away from God altogether. The “stakes” of free will are enormous (damnation versus salvation), so perhaps the Narrator is right to be intimidated.
As the Narrator looks around, he has the feeling that the grass and trees are made of an unusual substance. He tries to pluck a daisy from the earth, but finds that the flower is as hard as a diamond and as heavy as a sack of coal. Suddenly, the Narrator realizes that he has lost his body—he’s a transparent “phantom,” as are the other passengers from the bus.
Lewis admits that he got the idea for his Heaven’s “too-real reality” from a science-fiction story, but (somewhat amusingly) he couldn’t remember its title or author. The hardness, reality, and seeming timelessness of even the grass near Heaven makes one of Lewis’s most important points—that goodness isn’t just about obeying rules, it’s about choosing beauty, truth, and reality. Conversely, evil and sin are portrayed as small, weak, and ghostly things.
The Big Man, now a ghost, asks the Driver, “when have we got to be back?” The Driver explains that the passengers are under no obligation to return to the grey town. Someone shouts out that the people would be happier back in the grey town, since they have no idea what to do by the river.
As the Driver makes plain, the passengers have a choice: they can remain by the river, or they can return to the grey town. While neither option seems particularly attractive, the river at least is beautiful and suggests the possibility of happiness.
The Narrator looks up and sees what is either an enormous cloudbank or a mountain range. The object is big and bright, and the Narrator feels “the promise of sunrise” emanating from it. As he looks up, other ghost gather around, forming a big, lonely crowd. Suddenly the Narrator sees people, with what seem to be real, solid bodies, approaching. The people seem ageless—some are naked, and some are dressed in robes. The Narrator realizes that these people are Spirits who live by the river. Some of the ghosts scream at the sight of these Spirits and run back to the bus. But most of the ghosts huddle close to one another.
After being given the option of taking the bus back to the grey town, the sight of the mountains fills the Narrator with hope (the “promise of sunrise”) and encourages him to stay by the river. As we’ll see, the mountains symbolize the kingdom of Heaven—the river isn’t actually Heaven, but just an entryway to it. The beautiful, real bodies of the Heavenly Spirits are contrasted with the unhappy, ineffectual grey phantoms.