I recently finished reading Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, the retelling of a classic Greek myth taken from the Metamorphoses or “The Golden Ass.” If you are unfamiliar with the story of Psyche and Cupid, here is a nice walk-through. In this narrative, we watch as Psyche’s beauty stirs up the jealousy of the goddess, Venus; Cupid saves Psyche out of love; the lovers are torn from each other by the jealousy-hate of Psyche’s sisters; the trials Psyche overcomes at the hand of the gods; and the eventual reunion of Psyche and Cupid. The allegorical fairy tale-myth is a fascinating and well-known example of the marriage between mortal flesh and the divine.
In TWHF, however, this popular story is told not from the perspective of Psyche, but predominantly from the perspective of her older sister, Orual. Lewis’s reasons for doing so can be understood at the very end of the book:
The central alteration in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes. . .This change of course brings with it a more ambivalent motive and a different character for my heroine and finally modifies the whole quality of the tale. I felt quite free to go behind Apuleius, whom I suppose to have been its transmitter, not its inventor. . .[In] relation to my work, he is a “source,” not an “influence” nor a “model.”
Till We Have Faces (p. 313)
The story of Psyche and Cupid was a story that haunted Lewis for decades; he questioned the rationale behind the characters’ decisions and believed that the obvious answer lay within the visibility (or invisibility) of the house of Psyche’s hidden love. Thus, with this central change in the story, Lewis explored the character of Orual and the relationship between the mortals and the gods.
Because of this change, we see Orual act not purely out of jealousy but out of a jealous love and a hateful ignorance. We see ourselves in her, and in her counselors, for our very mortal lack of understanding in Divine Nature. I have a sneaking suspicion that Lewis drew heavily from his own reasoning and life experiences as he transitioned away from pre-Christian, “Greek-like” thinking; contemplated the half-truths of the pagan; and, eventually, came to a place of standing in court with his accusations in hand–answered by the mere presence, and nearness, of the gods.
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822)
The Fox’s Wisdom: Greek Knowledge
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. . .
1 Corinthians 1:22
Early on in TWHF, we are introduced to the “Fox,” a Greek-freeman made Glome-slave tasked with teaching the king’s daughters. Despite the King’s temperamental treatment of the Greek, the Fox shows constant affection for the eldest and youngest daughters–Orual and Psyche. (The middle sister, Redival, shows little care for the studies and more care for material or vulgar matters.) With careful and loving guidance, the Fox teaches the daughters how to write, sing, talk, and even think like the Greek. He eats up the stories of Glome, and shares some from his country’s, noting the similarities between the two.
He, however, does not believe in the gods. He refers to these stories as the “lies of poets.” When confronted by Orual’s story of Psyche’s invisible palace, he is quick to dismiss it as a trick of the mind; when he learns of Psyche’s lover, he is quick to call the god some sort of mountain thief or savage. In other words, when he is faced by even the distant thought of the Divine, he is quick to dismiss it in favor of his own Greek logic and rationale. He only believes in things he can see with his natural eyes and, like the great outgrowth of Western Civilization, refuses to accept what he cannot understand. Thought and reason to him must be linear and concrete. What is easily explained away is easily ignored and forgotten and best left to the lies of poets.
This is a fundamental shift in thought which has permeated Western history and our contemporary society on many different levels. From the endless debates of the Greek philosophers; to the revival of reason during the Age of Enlightenment; to the recent systematic destruction of fairies and the unseen today, we have seen the effects of our finite “wisdom” take its hold on childlike stories and turn them into childish fancies. To the Fox, the Divine Nature, if it does exist, is an impersonal force independent of the lives and choices of humanity.
But such a thirst for knowledge can have devastating effects. Perhaps, we will realize this quicker than the Fox, who didn’t see the limitations of his foresight until after he had died and heard the voices of the gods. In some tragic irony, it’s as if his very words had turned into nothing but the “lies of poets.”
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton
The Priest’s Sacrifice: Barbaric Vulgarity
Although much of Orual’s beliefs about the gods are molded by the way the Greeks think (and we can see evidence of the Greek in how she rules her kingdom as a queen; in her libraries, social structures, and manner of judgments), we also know that Orual has seen and cannot deny the existence of the gods. When Orual convinces her dear sister, Psyche, to break the one promise she has made to her lover, we see the immediate consequences. The once beautiful valley, and its house of Divine Nature, are destroyed; Psyche is swept away; and at that time, the terrible voice of the God is heard rolling from the heavens when he proclaims: “You are also Psyche.”
It may well be that by trickery of priests men have sometimes taken a mortal’s voice for a god’s. But it will not work the other way. No one who hears a god’s voice takes it for a man’s.
Yet before this ever happens, we also find Orual exposed to the customs and traditions of her people. The Metamorphoses‘s Venus in this story is Ungit, a vengeful god, a jealous deity, a faceless stone splattered with the blood of sacrifices and reeking with the horrid scent of “holiness.” Holiness, to Orual, is a cruel word–accompanied by violent practices and ugly smells. Afraid of Ungit’s anger, it is the people of Glome who initially sacrifice Psyche to the god of the mountain in the first place. They do it not expecting her to find marriage in life, but marriage in death. She is to be consumed by that jealous rage.
When Orual meets Psyche in the valley, we see that she is alive and taken care of. Psyche says that she had known that the curse on the land had been lifted, when the winds and the rain came. In an act of mercy, she was taken by the west wind to live in the house of her new love. But Orual is blind: to the house, to the wine, and to the cup. Orual and Psyche may be reunited, but they are separated by the unseen.
Orual takes this news back with her and, while the Fox is quick to dismiss it as a mere mortal, faithful Bardia suggests it might in fact be that great Shadowbrute–son and husband of Ungit; a god, but one too hideous to show its face, one too beastly to reveal its true nature. Here we see the pagan understanding, yet mistranslated, pronunciation of Truth. While the Greek mind is quick to understand, the pagan eye is quick to see. But each only has one piece of the puzzle.
J. R. R. Tolkien, like most Catholics, saw pagan myths not as wholly mistaken (as most Protestants do), but as confused precursors of Christianity. Man’s soul has three powers, and God left him prophets for all three: Jewish moralists for his will, Greek philosophers for his mind, and pagan mythmakers for his heart and imagination and feelings. . .C. S. Lewis calls pagan myths “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility” (Perelandra, p. 201). . .Christianity was “myth become fact”.
The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft
Interestingly in pagan traditions, where beauty is found, there Truth is often found also. However, where there is ugliness; what often results is not the product of Truth, but of a very corrupted perversion of the soul. Ungit and the Shadowbrute did exist, but not within the nature that the people of Glome had constructed and not in the form that the priests of Glome worshiped. They are right to be scared, for “. . .the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is” but they are afraid for all the wrong reasons (Till We Have Faces, p. 284).
The Modern Man: Barefaced Voices
And so we, we manicured products of Greek thinking and contemporary folk tales, must come to accept that we are Orual. We are Orual in every such way that she is Psyche and Ungit. We find ourselves on a precarious ledge, one which overlooks a sea of thoughts crying for us to fall in. We have traded our Greek thoughts and Pagan sacrifices for American ideals and compromises. Much like Orual hid the ugliness of her face behind a veil, we have hidden the ugliness of ourselves behind veiled words–politics, religion, distractions, and routine. We reason away Divine Grace with science, and sacrifice our Mores for entertainment. Little do we ever stop to consider that the Divine might work within and through the natural, not against us; little do we stop to consider that we might find lasting joy in Truth, not only fleeting pleasure in half-baked lies.
In TWHF, Orual states profoundly that she is Ungit. She then goes through a period of striving to better herself, to make her ugliness beautiful. Needless to say, she fails. How can she be beautiful unless she removes her veil–until she allows herself to be stripped of everything and be remade worthy of beauty? This realization causes her to think back on her accusation of the gods and write the second book–the last four chapters of TWHF.
It isn’t until she lives through the trials of Psyche that she understands that while the tasks had been Psyche’s, the suffering was hers. It isn’t until she stands before the gods with her accusation that she finds herself babbling and sees the same shame Psyche had felt; it is the shame of being mortal before gods, of being naked and ugly before the beautiful.
When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
Till We Have Faces (p. 294)
We see that we are Ungit: hideous and hiding our true self, faceless like that temple stone, masquerading like that carved statue, veiled like that queen of Glome, suffering in Psyche’s place.
But so it is, in a beautiful revelation of Divine Grace, we again enter into Orual’s place. Our wisdom fails us, and the half-truths of our barbarian nature are made clear before us. With Orual, we look into the reflection at the end of our life, and see two Psyches side by side. The terrible, but beautiful voice comes upon us again and we hear the words echo on our ears:
“You are also Psyche.”