A few friends and I have started a book club together, and we just did a meeting on Till We Have Faces. We’re trying to be very serious about this club, writing pieces or researching discussion questions before we meet. So far we’re very earnest but distracted, like college freshmen if the freshmen had babies on their hips.
I wrote the following piece for the club, so it assumes that the reader is familiar with C.S. Lewis’s final novel, which is a retelling of the mythical story of Cupid and Psyche. This was my third read of the book, and it was definitely the first time I felt like I understood Lewis’s intent. Highly recommend.
Oruel doesn’t know herself.
She believes herself to be motivated by love, and you would think, on cursory reading of her story, that she is totally sincere. She is willing to stake her very life on it, actually—she journeys to the mountain, cuts her arm as a token of her earnest intent, and tempts her sister to disobey the god who has wed her. Surely, if she believed Pysche’s story all along, she wouldn’t risk the anger of a god.
But this is what Lewis is getting at in this book—the very mystery of rebellion, the stuff that rebellion is made of. Why, if we all know in our deepest hearts that God exists and is good and is unanswerable—what could possibly motivate us to turn our faces from that knowledge? Wouldn’t fear itself be enough?
Surely, if we believe that we are purely motivated to look at the facts and draw our own conclusions (in a process similar to what Oruel goes through when talking to Bardia and the Fox and deciding on her plan to go back up the mountain with a dagger and a lantern), surely we can look at the high stakes and determine that we WANT to know the truth. Who wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t they?
But the story of Oruel gives the lie to that. The cracks in her “love” for Psyche show first, and this is our first hint that she may not know herself as well as she thinks. At one point, she is prepared to kill Psyche in a show of ‘tough love’ rather than letting her be joyful but deceived. At another, we discover in an unguarded comment that she would actually prefer to find that Psyche is mad than right about being the lover of a god. She would actually prefer to find that her beloved was out of her wits, than to know that she was out of her own hands and in the grip of glory:
“But, Maia,” she said, “I’ve told you all my story. My god, of course. My lover. My husband. The master of my House.”
“Oh, I can’t bear it,” said I, leaping up. Those last words of hers, spoken softly and with trembling, set me on fire. I could feel my rage coming back. Then (like a great light, a hope of deliverance, it came to me) I asked myself why I’d forgotten, and how long I’d forgotten, that first notion of her being mad. Madness of course. The whole thing must be madness. I had been nearly as mad as she to think otherwise. At the very name madness the air of that valley seemed more breathable, seemed emptied of a little of its holiness and horror (pg 122).
Is this what it’s like to have a family member converted when we ourselves are still in rebellion? To feel the grip of control loosening, the loves that we once shared so closely with our friend or child or sibling begin to diverge?
Oruel’s clinging reaction to Psyche’s joy shows that her love is not love, though she calls it love again and again.
Later, she sees a flash of an image, and the palace is momentarily visible to her. But still, she finds it easier to disbelieve than to believe. She finds it easier to stage a careful trial of evidence, bringing other advisors into the conversation in a show of justice.
The outrageous expectations of gods
This brings me to a thought that I have often had about Christianity.
When I’m reading the story of Oruel, what I’m most struck by is the plausibility of Oruel’s position. She IS led up the mountain to find that she can’t see the palace her sister is describing. She IS given only a moment of a vision of that palace. She DOES begin as an abused and ugly citizen in a kingdom full of confused and conflicting opinions—the Greek philosophy of her tutor on the one side and the pagan idolatry of her country on the other. Like anyone in a secular world today, she is born into a chaos of confusion, and at every step of her encounter with the gods, there are lots of plausible ways to explain the phenomena and come up with some other answer than the truth.
I have the same feeling about Jesus’s parable of the talents, oddly. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven will be like this: a master going on a journey calls three of his servants and gives the first one five talents, the second two talents, and the third one talent. While he’s gone, the five and two talent guys invest and double their money.
But the one talent guy buries his in the ground. The master praises the first two, but indicts the third.
“Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.”
But his master answered, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25: 24b-30)
As a girl, I was always confused by this reaction. It seemed awfully hard—the man hadn’t been given adequate instructions, and all he’d done was be very very careful and act on the safe side… surely if he’d known what was expected of him… possibly you can’t do much with a single talent anyway…
But what the parable illustrates is the all-silencing justice of what the master says.
“You didn’t do what you knew to be right.”
“I didn’t know—”
For all of Oruel’s agonized and apparently sincere complaints about the injustice of the gods’ treatment, in the end, her motives are shown up when she actually encounters a god. The first time she encounters the West-wind, he looks silently at her:
“He rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been. A Greek verse says that even the gods cannot change the past. But is this true? He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself” (173).
Oruel’s charge, written out into story form, is this:
“[The gods] gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me… they then brought me to her at such a place and time that it hung on my word whether she should continue in bliss or be cast out into misery… they would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me—what’s worse, punished me through her” (249).
This is the accusation that she concludes with in the first section of her account. But at the beginning of the second, she reveals that it was the writing itself the gods used to start opening her eyes to the truth.
The visions that follow end in a scene when she is able to tell her complaint aloud to the gods, except this time the complaint is not the book full of self-deception that we already read; it’s a new, much shorter condensation of her true grievance.
This is when we find that she hates the gods for their beauty, and for stealing Psyche’s heart and self from Oruel’s own possession. It is for their beauty and glory that she hates them, and Psyche’s love for the god, her husband, is the reason that in her secret heart of hearts, she hates Psyche herself rather than loving her better than her own life (as she’s been used to telling herself):
“Oh, you’ll say you took her away into bliss and joy such as I could never have given her, and I ought to have been glad of it for her sake. Why? What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes” (292).
It is at this point that Oruel finally understands herself. Her own accusation, the words that she’s been saying in her heart all along—this is the answer to her complaints. Her complaint, when stripped to its honest core, is its own answer. Because it becomes clear that the reason she couldn’t figure out the riddle, the reason she hoarded her talent away, was that she grudged the gods their right to demand so much of her.
God does demand of us. He demands everything we “have to give,” as the hackneyed phrase goes. But in in the end, he demands more than that. He demands outrageous things of us—that we apply ourselves to the service of him with our whole minds and hearts and imaginations. He demands that we look with the eyes of our hearts, to see things that aren’t obvious. He demands things that sound outrageous (how could I have known you wanted me to invest the talent??) until our cases against him are spoken out loud, in their true words: “I wanted not to see; and so it wasn’t clear to me. I wanted to be my own lord, and so it seemed unclear to me how you wanted me to submit. I wanted to be free, and so the freedom you offered me was not to my taste. I tried my very very best, but my best is ashes.”
These are the confessions that, even in the middle of our complaints, silence our complaints against the God of the West-wind.
Nothing can be done for us until someone outside of ourselves gives us a new face, new eyes, new heart. We will continue with our disingenuous grievances until someone lifts us to our feet and says, “You also are Psyche” (308).