Part VI Of How To Bring Myths & Fairy Tales Back From The Dead & Into The Light: Lewis’ TILL WE HAVE FACES
Do we always know why we do things?
Generally, in fairy tales and myths, yes, characters are driven by simple motives that are right there, up front. In TILL WE HAVE FACES, unknown motives (at least unknown to the protagonist) is a central theme. Think of the metaphors of bare faces and veiled faces and different identities signified by names or the state of the face (bare vs covered). Istral is Psyche. The Brute is Cupid or Ungit, but perhaps, said Orual, he is a mere man, some robber or vile kidnapper. Ungit is Aphrodite, and both a black stone smeared in blood and a graceful statue in Greek form. Orual is curdface and Maia and Queen and, yes, Psyche and Ungit as well.
So, here is one way to bring myths and fairy tales to life: Give people real human depth. We do not always admit to ourselves our true motives. We do not always know why we do what we do. We are often conflicted in our desires. We aren’t as easy to peg as a folk tale’s character.
In the original story, the sisters are jealous of Psyche’s good fortune in marrying a god and living in a splendid palace of wonders. Psyche is gullible and merely follows their advice out of fear.
Lewis will not have it.
He breathes life, flawed and complex and humane, into his retelling. Here is Psyche, not gullible, but full of grace and purpose and mercy, even as she sees exactly what she does and why. Psyche is not a fool. Here is Orual: full of a self-devouring and other-devouring love, convinced she must do drastic things for the good of the beloved ones, and finding that she brings disaster instead. But does she really know what she does? No. Orual is the most interesting of all the characters, and justifiably the protagonist, because it is she who does not know who she is, doesn’t know her face, only knows what she wants. She wants to hold on to her sister. In trying to hold on to her, she loses her.
It is a great tragedy, and when you read it, your heart breaks.
So, we come back to where we left off: Chapter Seven. It is the night before Psyche is to be sacrificed to the brute, and in a chapter brimming with excellent characterization and dialogue, we find ourselves with the sisters in the prison chamber, alone. Orual is damaged physically by her father’s vicious beating. Psyche is isolated, but permitted by the guard’s mercy to have a moment with Orual.
Psyche is composed and philosophical. Orual is distraught and angry and a turmoil of desperation and hurts. Orual still wants to be enveloped in Psyche’s love, but Psyche has prepared herself for leavetaking—perhaps death, perhaps a real and unbelievable joining with a god.
An important line is uttered by Psyche (with reference to Redival, their shallow, lustful, betraying sister, whom Orual curses and Psyche pities): “She also does what she doesn’t know.”
With that single, simple line imbedded in a strenuous conversation, Lewis takes us immediately to Calvary, to someone else sacrificed for the good of the people (as Psyche is about to be sacrificed), and we see the nobility in Psyche. Her ability to think of others, and not just herself in a time of great trouble. She is, in her own gentler way, preparing her sister for the separation, calling her “sister” and “friend” and referring to herself as “bride”. One could believe this is a real conversation between ancient sisters. Myth has come to life here by virtue of strong characterization.
And for the Christian, here is how to infuse Biblical life into retellings. Not by repeated insertion of verses or theological spoutings (though some of this has its place in some stories, no doubt), but by the fitting allusion at the right time. Just like that, depth is added and truth springs free.
Here is another example of truths (philosophical and theological) in Psyche’s dialogue, where she responds to Orual’s accusation that the gods are possibly real and” viler than the vilest men”:
“Or else,” said Psyche, “they are real gods but don’t really do these things. Or even—mightn’t it be—they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be? How if I am indeed to wed a god?”
We fly in mind to Job. We skip to Revelation. We understand that God, the real God, is misunderstood. And He does things to His own purposes, which men cannot fathom. And that one day we are to attend a marriage supper of the divine kind. From Calvary to the O.T. to the N.T., all in the span of a few pages, all from situation and dialogue and characterization.
Props to Clive!
Psyche is a Christ-figure, of course, and Redival is a Judas figure, but sadly, Orual will become a Judas figure, too. And Orual’s betrayal will be much worse.
At the end of this intense chapter, Orual feels their last embraced has been spoiled. Her mind is not at ease. Her love is not satisfied. She accuses Psyche of never having truly loved her, which we know is a terrible accusation to one we know loves us.
Psyche is sacrified. Orual mends from her wounds. And, as she says, she has “missed being Iphigenia” by taking her sister’s place in the sacrifice. So, she will be Antigone. So, she goes with Bardia to see if all that is left of her sister is bones, and if so, then bones she will honor with a proper burial.
But Psyche is alive, glowing with joy and regained her flesh (she has been eating well), and delighted in her marriage. But, what marriage? Orual sees no palace, no wine cup, nothing that Psyche sees as her magnificent surrounding.
And that is precisely where Lewis seriously altered the original tale to make this one work: The element of doubt that allows Orual to take the steps she will take and change all their lives forever.
Only Psyche sees the palace. Orual sees nothing but Psyche in rags in the open air. The sisters inhabit two different realities. Now, now, we have our crux. Events will not transpire due to simple jealousy over fineries and good fortune. A greater tragedy will ensue than the original. And you will care.
Exercise: Take any folk tale, fairy tale, or myth you wish, and tell me what crucial part of the structure would you knock out and replace to make the story new and complex and relevant?
Question: What would you do if your sister was Psyche and you could not see her palace or clothes or fineries, only rags and grass and air, you could only see her overwhelming health and radiant joy? Would you take it away for her own good? Any Scriptures come into play in making this decision?
Next Week: Part VII: Losing Face, Gaining a Throne, and Finding Truth