Read: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Very weird, interesting, remarkably visual. Stunningly imaginative.
Listened to: “The Book of Secrets” by Loreena McKinnet, with her perfect setting of “The Highwayman.”
Ah, the good ol’ US of A. Ah, the ugly cities and the lovely farmlands, the traffic and the taxes, unbeautiful accents and ubiquitous jeans, hooray for Walmart’s prices and a sigh for the crimes of capitalism…. Sorry for the long lapse in posting; we have no internet at home, so I have to haul my thoughts over to the nearest public library for a time.
This post is for my mother, who asked me to explain my fascination with and delight in Till We Have Faces . I will try. While writing about my favorite books is one of the many pleasures in being in the literary field, it is also painful. I detest dissecting these glorious works, these worlds of their own that need to be simply, purely, fully experienced from beginning to end as immersion, as universes, as ethical and terrestrial holisms. And yet, and yet… what could be more desirable than sharing the delights of my favorite book? So here goes. Fair warning: I’m going to write this to those of you who have read it, and not stop to explain who’s who and where quotes come from, etc.
There are two main beauties of Till We Have Faces. One is the “big idea,” Lewis’s mythopoeia, and the other is the totality of all the little glories—the incidental or local glories, as it were. I’m going to work backwards, from the minor delights to the major one, because I think this approach will be more accessible. What follows is a list of some of the book’s pleasures. The next posting will be on Christian Mythology.
- The epigraph: “Love is too young to know what conscience is.” The first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 151, but surpassing that work by as much as Lewis’s philosophy and faith were above the Bard’s. While that sonnet is a chain of carnal quibbles, here the quotation speaks of Orual’s sub-moral love, Psyche’s super-moral love, and the god’s supra-mortal love.
- Dedication: “To Joy Davidman.” TWHF was published in 1956, when Lewis was married to Joy. He says somewhere that she was so involved in his mental processes during the creation of this book “as to be almost a co-author.” Hence his profound understanding of female psychology; hence his heightened awareness of female beauty, both physical and mental; hence the noticeable lack of misogynist comments freely peppered through his other works. Also, I find it endearing that he calls her by her maiden name here—also her pen name throughout her life, I believe—as a gesture towards her youth and her authorship.
- The first sentence: “I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.” Alright, perhaps there is not much prettiness in that sentence, but as a piece of literature it is beautiful. Look at how it sets the tone for the entire first section of the novel; see how it paints a vague historical and geographical context by the mere word “gods”; see how it encapsulates the character’s past and present, age and attitude, faith and heresy? She has not always been old, has been wont to fear the anger of gods. Even now, she still has something to fear from them. But not much.
And do not you fear: I shall not proceed at this pace through the entire book! More beauties:
- The psychological honesty about the human sense of injustice by the gods. Who has not been tempted to say to God, “It’s not fair”?
- The fairy-tale feeling (The Stepmother, a nurse, a tutor, a dark god in a darker house, an agricultural society) infused with emotional realism, peopled by complex, timeless, modern characters.
- The Fox. Wise, stoic, affectionate, stolid, tender, clever, witty, loveable, loving, a seeker of knowledge, a story-teller, a muddled mixture of the practical (“lies of poets, child, lies of poets”) and the fantastical (carried away on the songs of Aphrodite). He thrills to Lewis’s own Joy: “The real lilt came into his voice and the real brightness into his eyes when we were off into Take me to the apple-laden land….”
- The intuitive, experiential understanding of the truth that The Law Kills (but the Spirit gives life….). The smell of “the horror of holiness” hanging around the Priest of Ungit, human sacrifice, temple prostitution, ritual superstition: all these are Old Testament, are Law before Grace. They are the essence of a pre-Christian religion.
- Psyche herself. True beauty. As a newborn, “she made bright all the corner of the room in which she lay. Always laughing, making all others laugh, merry, truthful, obedient, virtuous, spirited, compassionate, selfless. In her was the Form of the Beautiful, “what every woman… ought to have been and meant to be.” The Fox calls her Helen (one of Lewis’s great symbols, and Joy Davidman’s other name): “Terribly does she resemble an undying spirit.”
- The subtlety of the horrors that shattered Orual’s youthful happiness. No obvious catastrophes here: people worshipping Psyche, wars won but won with bad spirit, no heir and no mate for the king. Then famine, plague, drought, lions in the land. Not the troubles that usually upset the settled loves in a young girl’s head, and yet—so real, so true. Then, finally, the worst blow paganism can give: sacrifice the most pure, the most beautiful, to The Brute.
- The unanswerable nature of pre-Christian language, that apes our own diction so closely, yet with such twistings. In holy language, loving and devouring are the same; the Bride is the Brute’s Supper; in a mystery, Ungit and her son are one. Parodies of the Trinity, of the Eucharist, of a believer’s death and resurrection in baptism. And not only that, but the Priest was sure of Ungit. His faith in that vile goddess was unshakable. What’s a good pagan to do?
- Bardia. A soldier’s heart (whatever that means; it works in the stories), full of admiration for bravery and awe for beauty, with complete trust in gods he does not understand. Like Emeth in The Last Battle, he has sincere faith in the wrong deity.
- The psychological perfection of the scene in Psyche’s prison-room on the night before the sacrifice. Orual finds she is being comforted, as if she were the child and the victim, by her calm little, ageless sister. This nettles her. She needs to be needed, needs Psyche to weep and cling to her. Psyche “wastes” time getting Orual to tell her the whole tale of their father’s anger. How often have we found that listening ear and babbled out all our troubles, only to feel unsatisfied because the listener is unmoved by any sorrow and requires no listening in return? Orual accuses her of a heart of iron—because it is strong and unbendable in torment. Like Christ, Psyche says to forgive Redival, for “she also does what she doesn’t know,” and “How can I be the ransom for all Glome unless I die?” Orual has lost her, lost her to something greater which she cannot understand. And she grudges her this joy.
- This Joy. “When I was happiest I longed most,” says Istra, for death. For whatever was beyond the Grey Mountain. It was so intense “it almost hurt me.” “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain—“ or the island, or the blue flower, or the Great Beyond. “The longing for home.”
- Then, the perfection of the moment when each realizes the other’s ignorance of an entire world. When Psyche realizes Orual cannot see her palace; when Orual realizes Psyche sees it right there in the fields and forest. The tension, the shock, the quivering of mind and body with disbelief. And then the rain, the terrible rain that falls on Psyche and she feels it not, and Orual tries to cover and comfort her and cannot. How many moments do we suffer like this? When we are in another realm from those we love, separated by illness or unbelief or misunderstanding or misperception or culture or time or place? Here they are divided by the gods.
- The gods. The West-Wind, a young, rough god. If he touched to hastily mortals would fall to pieces. Here begins the truth, the eternal truths expressed in nature and in story. If Moses had looked God in the face, he would have died. The god who comes to Psyche in the night, who looks upon Orual with “passionless and measureless rejection.”
And there I will cease for today, and another day talk of the great beauties of the second part, and of Lewis’s mythopoeia. They are one and the same, and they are the glory of this excellent book.