Monday, January 17, 2005

Of Gods and Mortals

A co-worker of mine, who is a fairly recent college grad (1 year ago) and who had a double major in English Lit and Religious Studies, and I were talking a couple months ago about mythology and religion. The conversation came about after I made an offhand remark that we should call our still-in-design-phase online/email newsletter "Narcissus" since our print newsletter is called "Echoes." Everyone who heard me said, "huh?" Except her. She laughed, bless her. During our conversation she asked if I had ever read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. "No," I said. "You should," she told me, "you'll really like it." So I bought a copy and just now got around to reading it. And she was right. I do like it. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. It is set in Glome, a nonexistant country in the real world, north of Greece and faintly European. The book is written as a book written by Orual, the eldest daughter of the King of Glome. Orual is ugly, but smart and strong. She learns quickly from the Greek slave, the Fox, her father buys to teach her and her sister Redival. Their mother dies and the King remarries in hopes of having a son. But instead he gets another girl and another dead wife. The girl is called Istra which translates to Psyche in Greek. Since Orual is under the sway of the Fox they always call her Psyche. The country of Glome falls on bad times about the same time Psyche is in her mid to late teens. To save the country from utter ruin, the goddess Ungit demands a human sacrifice. The Priest of Ungit consults the signs and declares the sacrifice is to be Psyche. Psyche is all that is beautiful and good and to Orual, who has raised her, the Priest has made a mistake. But Psyche complies and is chained to a tree at the top of Ungit's mountain where she expects to be eaten by the Brute, the son of Ungit. The next day Glome's drought is over. Rain comes and things start to look better. Orual makes a secret journey to the mountain top to give her beloved sister's bones the proper burial they deserve. But she discovers that Psyche is alive and well and living in a lush valley just over the mountain top. Psyche says she is the wife of a god, though she does not know which one and has never seen his face. Orual thinks Pysche mad and devises a scheme with a lamp. Things go just as in the myth. The god banishes Psyche to a life of wandering and tells Orual that she is Psyche and will suffer the same fate. And that's just half the book. It goes on but I will spare you the details. Lewis manages to take the myth of Psyche and turn it into a story about faith. The Fox teaches Orual that there are no gods, that everything that happens has a natural explanation, that religion and the gods are nothing but stories we make up to explain what we don't understand. Orual sees evidence to the contrary:

The Fox had taught me to think--at any rate to speak--of the Priest as as of a mere schemer and a politic man who put into the mouth of Ungit whatever might most increase his own power and lands or most harm his enemies. I saw it was not so. He was sure of Ungit...Our real enemy was not a mortal. The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.
But Orual can't reconcile it with her belief in what the Fox tells her. Eventually she believes in the gods, but because they took Psyche away from her, she hates them. Till We Have Faces is Orual's complaint against the gods:
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. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places? I say, therefore, that there is no creature so noxious to man as the gods. Let them answer my charge if they can.
The gods do answer Orual. And we discover that the book is not just about faith but also the journey of the soul:
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?
This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it, especially for those who enjoy myths and mythic retellings. This is the first C.S. Lewis book I have ever read--I didn't read the Narnia books when I was a kid. I will definitely be reading more of him in the future.