19 Dec

I think I just read the best book ever besides About Alice.  I finished Til We Have Faces yesterday, last night actually.  Too late.  After a party, and a wedding, and Nutcracker pick-ups at 10 p.m.

I first read Til We Have Faces by Mr. C.S. Lewis when I was a freshman in college.  We had a required religion class, which I think is wonderful.  If I were starting college now, I might have majored in religion.  It would have been like studying English but with more worldview.  I remembered very little from my first reading.  Only that it was based on a myth – that of Cupid and Psyche.  Psyche was a beautiful mortal and the goddess Aphrodite became jealous of her.  So she called for the sacrifice of the mortal girl.   Aphrodite’s son Eros (Cupid) fell in love with the lovely maiden and brought her to his castle, where he kept her and visited her by night.  Psyche’s sisters were jealous of Psyche’s happiness and set out to destroy it.  And so they did.

Lewis sets his fairy tale in the mythical kingdom of Glome, which is ruled by a King and heavily governed by the Goddess Ungit.  Ungit is the Glomian version of Aphrodite.  The king has three daughters, and the youngest is the beautiful Psyche.  The narrator of the tale is Orual, the oldest daughter of the king.  Orual’s face is as ugly as Psyche’s is appealing, but Orual feels no jealousy toward her beautiful sister – she only loves and dotes on her.

Eventually, as in the myth, Ungit/Aphrodite calls for the sacrifice of the perfect and blameless daughter.  In the myth, Aphrodite (the prevailing deity) wants to be rid of her rival.  In the novel, it is the people who clamor for Psyche’s sacrifice on Ungit’s behalf.  That brought to mind the crowds calling for Jesus’s crucifixion.  The blameless, the perfect, she without sin, giving herself up to die for the ugly disease of the people.  A human sacrifice to appease angry gods.

The story is not about Psyche and her fate as much as it is about the fate of Orual, the oldest sister.  She covers her face to hide her ugliness, and in so doing, she begins to live as someone other than herself.  She eventually succeeds her father as Queen Orual, there being no male heirs in the lineage.  Under her reign, the land is restored to peace and prosperity.  She is a skilled soldier, riding into battle with her generals.  She makes a good and honorable life out of a sad and lonely existence.  She is reared in the Greek tradition of philosophy and reasonableness and disbelief in the supernatural.  Of course while she denies the divinity of the gods, in part because of the pain they have caused her, she is also superstitious and angry with them for the constant challenges and difficulties she faces – being ugly, losing her mother to death, being mistreated by her father, losing her beloved sister in sacrifice.  Orual simultaneously denies and despises the existence of the gods whatsoever.

At the end of a life that is successful by all outer measures, she is confronted with an alternative vision of her life.  One where she was jealous.  Where she was angry and manipulative.  Where she caused as much anguish as she suffered.  Where her motives, although she thought them pure, were actually used in judgment against her.  Her entire life turned out to be other than what she had both intended and accomplished.

“Our moral efforts are too feeble and falsely motivated to ever merit salvation.” Tim Keller in The Reason for God.  I struggle to remain convinced of God’s grace, which is given freely.  I always try so hard to do right and behave well and be motivated correctly.  It’s a topic that is fresh in my mind after a discussion about submission and placing others’ interests first.  So ironic that it appears to be the dominant theme in a book I haven’t read in 20 years but felt called to give some attention to. 

The book is lovely.  It is brilliant.  It explains concepts in literature that defy the common wisdom of our time.  Mr. Lewis published the book in 1956.  Fifty years ago he knew more about self-determination and self-interest than many of us do today.  Orual lived as a brave, redeemed heroine.  But when you change your point of view just the tiniest bit and look at her life through a lens she never intended, the whole story is about the selfish manipulations of a jealous woman and the ways in which we use love to our benefit rather than giving it freely without thought of ourselves.The brilliance of the book is the braiding of myth, Christian doctrine, and pure fairy story, without denying any part its full development.

I said it was like swimming in cheesecake.  The text, the symbolism, and the imagery is so robust and rich that I could not take it all in adequately.  I commend it to you and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.  It is relevant on many different levels, even if he doesn’t gush like Calvin does in About Alice.


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