Part V: How To Bring Myths & Fairy Tales Back From The Dead and Into The Light–Lewis’s Till We Have Faces
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. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.
Being, for all these reasons free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who live son 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. But there is no judge between gods and men, and the god of the mountain will not answer me.
These are the opening paragraphs of TIL WE HAVE FACES. They establish that we are not in the present era or even in a Christian place. It’s a monarchy, and it’s a time of pagan belief and ritual (the gods, the god of the Grey Mountain), and the narrator is a queen (my crown) and old and has a grievance with the powers-that-be. It also tells us that this story is the queen’s complaint, akin to a legal cause, against the god of the mountain.
Who is this queen? She is Orual.
Who is Orual? She is the older half-sister of Istral (Psyche in Greek, as their Greek tutor, Fox, explains) and Redival. Orual is as ugly as Psyche has been luminously, awe-inspiringly beautiful. All three are daughterS of a selfish, brutish, violent, unwise, barbarian king whose
daughters are mere pawns he feels free to use to advance his own royal causes.
Orual, called all manner of cruel epithets throughout her years because of her ugliness, is writing her story, a retrospective intending to correct falsehoods and “set forth her true case” and grievances. Before we get to the fullness of the whys, let’s proceed chronologically through the whats, the tale as Lewis tells it.
Last week, I recapped the original myth of Cupid (Eros) and Psyche, and that will help to illuminate some of the parallels as Lewis fashions his own version of the story.
Orual, Redival, and Istral (Psyche) are the three daughters of the Trom, the King of Glome, (though not the same mothers) who grow up being tutored by a Greek slave, Fox, who brings education and reason to them. It is Orual and Psyche who benefit most from the learning, anD the three—Fox, Orual, Psyche—develop a close bond as the years pass. Redival is lusty, self-absorbed and left out of the threesome’s bonding. Psyche is, besides stunningly beautiful, gifted by a natural sense of the spiritual (her name means “soul” after all), and she is loving and gracious and brave without effort. Orual is smart, brave, intense, and highly possessive of her sister Istral/Psyche. Her love for Psyche becomes the central fact of her life and happiness.
The happiness is not long-lived.
Terrible times hit Glome: famine, plague drought. At the same time, Psyche is seen by those outside the palace, and her beauty is such that she’s taken to be a goddess. Women bring their children for her blessings. Offerings are made to her. At one point during the terrible plague, Psyche tends to a striken Fox, and when he recovers, the word gets out and the story becomes
that Psyche healed Fox with her touch. The people mass at the royal gates, seeking healing. The King is terrified at the seething, shouting crowd. When Psyche leaves the safety of the palace to touch the people, hoping to have some good effect, they bow to her, kiss the hem of her gown, and again, Psyche is treated as divinity.
When the hard times continue, however, the worship turns to suspicion. She begins to be called The Accursed. When the ailing, aged priest of the goddess Ungit (the goddess of Glome) recovers, he comes to the palace with his attendants (women described in such a way that we sense they are temple whores). He is blind, but he is fearless. His intense and unshakeable faith in Ungit affects Orual, who all along has feared that it is Psyche the priest has come to claim.
The meeting between the King and the Priest is a magnificent chapter. Orual is moved by the priest’s presence, both apprehension but something else, “Ungit smell” that turns the room “holy.” The priest announces that the goddess disfavor has caused the land to be cursed and the King to be barren (ie, no sons). The King offers a thief or, if the priest will wait, some battle prisoner. The priest, offended, says “Bulls and rams and goats will not win Ungit’s favor while the land is impure.” The statement echoes Biblical texts that say obedience is better than sacrifice and that God desires holiness more than the sacrifices of bulls and rams. And, of course, we think of the plagues and disasters heaped upon Israel when some offense stinks in the nostrils of God. The priest relates incidents in the past when those who committed offenses (sins that brought down Ungit’s wrath) had to be brought forward and their sins expiated. In this case, the sin is so great that The Accursed must be sacrificed to The Brute in The Great Offering.
(The Brute, interestingly, as the is explained, could be Ungit or could be Ungit’s son, hence the sacrifice could be male or female, and the “devourer” would be the fitting divinity, the one of the opposite sex.)
The King, fearing he’s the one who must be sacrificed, threatens the priest. Orual watches as the King lightly stabs the priest and threatens to kill him. (In the past, we see him kill a messenger for delivering news he didn’t like. The priest is doing likewise.) Orual loses what respect she had left for her father when the king’s ranting against sacrificing someone from the King’s house—he thinks he is the tartget—turns to relief and easy acquiescence when it turns out that the sacrifice will be Psyche.
Orual throws herself at her father’s feed and begs him to fight for Psyche’s life, but the King kicks his daughter and makes a self-serving series of statements, even after Fox gives his counsel on alternate ways the King might handle the matter without sacrificing his daughter. Fox even uses the story of Iphigenia (not using names) to show how sacrificing a daughter can bring ruin to the King and his family. But Orual has learned something through the awful encounter: There is an Ungit. There is a grievance against her. And the rational worldview of Fox did not accord with what she’d witnessed. “Our real enemy was not mortal. The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.”
Orual offers herself up as an alternate sacrifice to save her sister. The King drags her to a mirror to show her her ugliness. The priest said it was the best in the land that must be given in expiation, and the best was not Orual, the ugly.
Orual, in pain, battered and bruised, runs to see her sister. She encounters Redival, who is babbling and weeping (but still more worried about her own neck). Orual knows it is Redival who betrayed their sister to the priest. She tells her sister that one day, if she’s queen, she’ll have her killed most painfully. Then she seeks out Psyche. Barred from visiting with her, Orual finds a sword and threatens the guard, who after disarming the frantic Orual, takes pity and allows her within the prisoner Psyche’s chamber for a farewell. The Great Offering is scheduled for the next day.
That takes us through chapter six.
I’ll pick up on the actual story next week, as the seventh chapter is lovely and important in terms of characterization.
So, from the original story we maintain: three princesses, one too beautiful for words. We have a curse on the land. We have an aggrieved and jealous goddess. We have a mysterious beast of a god. And we have a sacrifice about to take place.
But Lewis adds depth to the sisters. Both are not self-serving and jealous and malicious. One is immature and selfish and malicious. One is willing to die in her sister’s place. The goddess is transformed. Aphrodite/Venus from the original is now a blood-thirsty and faceless stone, and a terrifying divinity. (Ironic, since Venus’ statues were so carefully crafted and often inspired great lust in its worshippers. Ungit inspires fear.) The king is foolish and the cause of much of his woes, if not all. And the girls are educated. The presence of Fox (the rational Greek) is in contrast to the priest (the servant of the dark goddess). Reason and mystery. Learning and superstition. Logic versus blood offerings.
Think of Orual and compare her to yourself: How often do we encounter in ourselves the idea that God has not played fairly with us or with humanity? What grievances do we have?
Were we once skeptics like Fox? Were we once disdainful of the blood sacrifices of ancient Israel (and most ancient religions)? Do we find such barbaric? Does the idea of pacifying angry gods make no sense to us?
I can say I have felt this at various times, and quite notably when I became very ill and had to quit working and became very bitter over the loss of abilities and the change in my life. Like Orual, who loses something of value, whose life changes, and whose bitterness is evident. And in reading the ancient Scriptures through the decades, I wonder how very bloody, how stench-filled, the temple’s core must have been: the shining gold of the tabernacle sprinkled with blood that was left there to decay and stink. Rivers of blood pouring from the temple court as animal after animal was butchered and bled to atone for sins offensive to a holy God. The mystery of that sanctum sanctorum, and the dread possibility of the priest’s offering being rejected, the priest struck dead, the priest who is himself purified with blood.
And Christ, ripped to shreds, punctured, speared, bled nearly dry, asphyxiating. Is this what a holy God truly requires?
When we see it with eyes of understanding, then we have to say, “Oh, yes. This is horrible. But this is also holy and true.” Orual has sensed this.
Believeres, at some point, must sense this as well, or remain blinded. The priests of scripture and the requirements of YHWH, the deaths that hold back judgement, the one death that brings wholeness and fruitfulness again, the something horrible but holy going on. Yes, Fox and his Greek learning had much of value, but the stinking, old, blindpriest and his devotion to an angry goddess demanding sacrifices, that had the smell of holiness…and truth as well.
Continued Next Week: Happy Holiday WeekEnd to All!
“Love is too young to know what conscience is.”