Commentary on C. S. Lewis, Till we have Faces: A Myth Retold: Pt. 2
Summary of the Myth
In this, the second part of this blog series, I will provide you with an overview of this book. For Part 1, click here. “I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me.” So begins the story of Orual and Psyche. The purpose of this book, is, to accuse the gods of wrongly chastising mankind, “I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge.” Like Job, Orual demands her day in court so that she can demonstrate how the God of the Grey Mountain has been unjust, and this book is her case against the gods.
The story begins with the death of Orual’s mother, which is quickly followed by the acquisition of the Fox, who was to be the teacher of Orual and Redival. It is just prior to the arrival of the king’s new wife, that Orual says that she first realized that she was truly ugly. The new wife did not last out the year, dying shortly after giving birth to Psyche. With the death of the second wife, the care of the third daughter falls to Batta, but Orual quickly “rescued” Psyche from Batta and raised the child as her own daughter. The years passed rather quickly, and Psyche grew up into a beautiful girl. Throughout her childhood, she felt a great love for the mountain, and fantasized about marrying the son of Ungit, the God of the Mountain. Orual describes this period of time, Psyche’s passage from baby to young woman, as the best time of her life.
This good time was brought to an end through the jealousy of Redival, and a famine that struck Glome. In the same year that the famine began, Orual also noted that the people of Glome began to worship Psyche. As the year went on, things went from bad to worst, and a plague spread through Glome. As the plague got worse, the people of Glome began to think that the touch of the beautiful Psyche would heal the sick, and they demanded that Psyche help them. Psyche, being very compassionate, submitted to the demands of the people, who worshipped her even more. This adoration, however, quickly subsided. Just as Jesus was worshipped at the triumphal entry and crucified week later, the people’s adoration for Psyche quickly turned to hate. Soon they were demanding that Psyche be sacrificed to the beast—the God of the mountain, in the hopes that this sacrifice would appease the God, and end the plague and famine. Though Orual contests the brutality and injustice of such an act, and the king, at first, will hear nothing of it, Psyche is, in the end, sacrificed to the god of the mountain. The stress related to the sacrifice of Psyche cause Orual to lose her health, and she is restrained to bed for a long period of time. Not long after the sacrifice of Psyche, the famine and the plague leave Glome, and things return to normal. The people of Glome, quite obviously, attribute these changes to the sacrifice of Psyche; the Fox attributes these changes to the normal course of nature.
Eventually, when Orual’s health returned, she decided to go bury the remains of Psyche. The preparations for the trip included learning, from Bardia, how to survive in the wild and how to wield a sword. After an extended period of training, Orual and Bardia leave to bury Psyche’s body, but, upon arriving at the spot where Psyche had been sacrificed, they found no signs of a sacrifice. Looking around for signs of what might have happened, Orual sees, all of a sudden, Psyche alive and well on the other side of the river. Orual is overjoyed, and crosses the river to see Psyche, who explains what has happened. The so-called beast, the god of the mountain, did not seek to devour her, but to marry her. Psyche’s dreams, of wedding the god of the mountain, had come true, and she was happier than ever. The god of the mountain only visits Psyche after dark, and does not allow Psyche to look upon his face. Orual asks Psyche to take her to this castle, only to find out that she is standing at its very gate—but cannot see it. Indeed, though Psyche has told Orual that she is wearing queenly gowns, and serving her wine, Orual can only see rags, water, and the rugged mountains behind them.
Psyche suggests waiting for the god of the mountains to arrive, claiming that he will make Orual see, but Orual wants nothing of it. “‘I don’t want it!’ I cried, putting my face close to hers, threatening her almost, till she drew back before my fierceness. ‘I don’t want it. I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Do you understand?’” Orual is furious that Psyche could have happiness, joy, without Orual being the cause of that joy. In her fury, Orual commands Psyche to return with her, to which Psyche replies, “Dear Maia, I am a wife now. It’s no longer you that I must obey.” Orual writes, in a line which is a terrible as it is powerful, “I learned then how one can hate those one loves.” Psyche is forced to send Orual away. Orual crosses the river and camps, for the night, with Bardia on the other side. That night the Gods allow Orual to see, for a moment, the castle. Bardia and Orual are forced to return to Glome without Psyche. On the way home, Orual spends a great deal of time in thought, and recognizes that she knows, at this point, that Psyche is completely happy. In spite of this, she determines that she would rather kill Psyche than allow Psyche to be the happy wife of the God of the mountain.
Upon her return to the castle in Glome, Orual recounts the whole story to the Fox, who attempts to reason with Orual to help her see that this cannot possibly be a god, but must be a villainous man, or a man of the mountains. At this point, Orual is willing to believe any story other than the one that Psyche told her, especially if it gives her reason to go and bring Psyche back by force. After a period of reflection, Orual determines to go bring Psyche back, and leaves to accomplish this task by any means possible. She finally succeeds, by taunting, dares, and eventually threats of physical harm, in convincing Psyche that she must look upon the god with a light—the very thing that the God had forbidden. Psyche finally agrees to do what Orual says, but makes a very haunting statement in the same instance, “You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred.” One of the haunting features of this myth is the ways in which Lewis analyses and brings out the very real nature of many things that humans so wrongly call love.
Psyche goes off to accomplish the forbidden deed, and Orual awaits, hopefully, Psyche’s humble and happy return to her. This is not what happens. The silence of the night is broken by the voice of the God which Orual to be terrified, “My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things.” The God sends Psyche into exile, and then appears to Orual, in a blinding light, to tell Orual about what will happen to Psyche because of her treachery. The God tells Orual, “you also shall be Psyche”, a phrase which continues to haunt Orual throughout the rest of the book. Orual has, in the name of love, entirely destroyed Psyche’s happiness. She returns to Glome broken and ashamed, and tells the Fox what she has done. From this point on, Orual veils her face, vowing never to remove it. She later notes that this veil becomes, for her, an enormous source of strength. Many rumours spread about the woman behind the veil, but, says Orual, “The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness.” This “rumour” all of a sudden takes on a whole new meaning when we read it in light of the key statement of the book, “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
Though Orual expects the judgment of the gods upon her, nothing happens. Rather, she eventually, after the death of her father, becomes the Queen of Glome, and becomes quickly known both as a benevolent ruler, a fierce warrior, and a great Queen. As the story continues, we see Orual doubting that anyone around her (such as the Fox and Bardia) really loves her. She gives the Fox his freedom, and then manipulates him into staying with her (removing his joy). She falls in love with Bardia (who is already married), and shames him into constantly staying at her side, until he becomes sick from overwork and dies. When the Fox finally dies, Orual determines to take a trip out of Glome. During this voyage, she comes across a temple to a wandering goddess. The name of the goddess is, to her horror, Istra. As the priest of this small temple tells the story of the goddess, Orual realizes that this temple is built to Psyche. Though the story is not 100% exact, Orual is not even willing to admit the truth of those elements which are exact—such as the fact that she saw the castle. From this experience springs the desire to set the records straight. This book is the product of that desire. The book that Orual writes (part 1 of Until we have Faces), finishes in the same way it begins, “I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do.”
Having finished the book, Orual comes back to it a couple of days later to add a second part to it—an emendation. The act of writing this book jogs Orual’s memory, which is not such a pleasant experience. The first chapter of part 2 is the account of Orual’s realization that she has killed Bardia, in the name of love, by working him to death. The second chapter is Orual’s realisation that she is, figuratively, Ungit—taking and devouring everything, and giving nothing in return. The first paragraph of chapter three ends with the statement “To say that I was Ungit meant that I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged.” Orual realizes that she is uglier in character than she is physically, and realizes that “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped.” Finally, Orual gets an audience with the gods, where, before she can present her case, her veil is removed. Her complaint is, indeed, a confession, and her true sentiments are laid bare. She realizes the atrocity of that desire, which she called love, which she had for Psyche—a desire to possess Psyche, rather than a desire for that which is best for Psyche. “We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal,” she says to the gods. The second book ends with a comment on the final words of the first book, “I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”