I feel like the protagonist's death at the very end is symbolic of his prior "pride death" and emergence of humility. In fact, he says to himself that he considered his life of very little account and therefore gladly gave it up to destroy the evil that he saw in that temple. So in that sense his death is fitting, even though it is mournful for the readers.
This is not the first time in the book that the protagonist faced the possibility of death. He was nearly killed by the Alder/Ash tree spirits and was nearly killed again by the giants. He attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the sea from the rocks, but his life was spared by the boat that floated to him.
And there is an interesting parallel when one considers that earlier attempted physical death (through drowning) and how the protagonist later dies to himself and to pride, after being imprisoned. Both of them occurred during severe bouts of depression and both times he was spared.
And then of course there was the time the protagonist "died" as one of the characters of the books he read, Cosmo. In that instance, he died in the act of freeing a woman he loved from the magical enchanted mirror. In that instance as well, one sees the inner struggle between his desire for control of the woman and his love of her (which requires sacrifice to fulfill it). All those other times, his life was spared, but this time it was not.
Chapter 24 continues the story as it must, with the death of the protagonist. It stirs my heart to see the protagonist once again see his Marble Lady, but now only after death. He had not been in her presence the entirety of the book since he departed the Fairy Palace (not withstanding his later vision of her in the old lady's hut).
Maybe, in some way, his death could be what seals his transformation into the knight, the better man, whom the lady loves. Of course, as I had hinted (but not directly spoken) in prior posts, the protagonist never captures the heart of the Marble Lady. In fact, it appears that the gremlins were correct: the Marble Lady was for a better man, for the knight whose armor was polished from its rust by blows from his enemies. And in that sense, perhaps giving up the Marble Lady to this better man was the final sacrifice required of Anodos (the protagonist) to fulfill his transformation. That it was the giving up, not of his own life, but of his ownership (to quote, "I no longer called her MY Marble Lady", emphasis his) of the Marble Lady to fulfill the death of self that was required to find peace. To quote:
The very fact that anything can die, implies the existence of something that cannot die; which must either take to itself another form, as when the seed that is sown dies, and arises again; or, in conscious existence, may, perhaps, continue to lead a purely spiritual life.
And he does find peace, as this chapter firmly and repeatedly states. He finds the peace of stillness and the cease of earthly strife and toil. Here is another passage that I find to be very strongly written. It speaks of the love that remains within his heart for the Marble Lady, and of the sense of closure that he finds in his death.
I knew that the helpers had gone, and that the knight and the lady remained, and spoke low, gentle, tearful words of him who lay beneath the yet wounded sod. I rose into a single large primrose that grew by the edge of the grave, and from the window of its humble, trusting face, looked full in the countenance of the lady. I felt that I could manifest myself in the primrose; that it said a part of what I wanted to say; just as in the old time, I had used to betake myself to a song for the same end. The flower caught her eye. She stooped and plucked it, saying, "Oh, you beautiful creature!" and, lightly kissing it, put it in her bosom. It was the first kiss she had ever given me.I will quote MacDonald again, because this is truly the culmination of the book. It's the culmination of the rise of humility in the protagonist's heart, and therefore it deserves repeating for the sake of emphasis, as well as the quality of the prose.
The sun was below the horizon; but his rosy beams yet illuminated a feathery cloud, that floated high above the world. I arose, I reached the cloud; and, throwing myself upon it, floated with it in sight of the sinking sun. He sank, and the cloud grew gray; but the grayness touched not my heart. It carried its rose-hue within; for now I could love without needing to be loved again. The moon came gliding up with all the past in her wan face. She changed my couch into a ghostly pallor, and threw all the earth below as to the bottom of a pale sea of dreams. But she could not make me sad. I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another; yea, that, where two love, it is the loving of each other, and not the being loved by each other, that originates and perfects and assures their blessedness. I knew that love gives to him that loveth, power over any soul beloved, even if that soul know him not, bringing him inwardly close to that spirit; a power that cannot be but for good; for in proportion as selfishness intrudes, the love ceases, and the power which springs therefrom dies. Yet all love will, one day, meet with its return. All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad. This is possible in the realms of lofty Death. "Ah! my friends," thought I, "how I will tend you, and wait upon you, and haunt you with my love."I have quoted this passage in prior blog posts (unrelated to this latest Book Club analysis) because of the substantial meaning in this passage. I won't rehash those points. But what I will say is that again, this concludes the protagonist's arc into humility from a position of pride.