Faces and veils

I finished reading C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, the feature book of the Word on Fire Institute Book Club. This was my first time participating in the book club and it was the author that drew me in. I’ve read a number of Lewis’ works, and while I’d like to say this time was the first time I read the book, it’s actually the first time I actually finished the book. 

The novel is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and while I was not familiar with the original, I believe the story does stand on its own. As I began reading the story, it did seem rather familiar to me, but I couldn’t figure out how. I started the novel on my tablet and then began to wonder if I had the physical book. I found that, indeed I did, complete with a bookmark not far into the story. It is written from the point of view of Orual, a princess of Glome who is documenting how the gods have wronged her, especially the local goddess Ungit. One thing is made clear: from a young age Orual has been judged by all as ugly.

As the oldest daughter of a King who only has daughters, Orual has little value in her world. A Greek slave who is brought in to help with correspondence becomes her tutor, not just in reading and writing, but also in philosophy and religion, discouraging belief in the local goddess. When the King’s second wife dies in childbirth with yet another daughter, Orual becomes a doting mother figure to the girl she refers to as Psyche. Together with the grandfatherly figure of the Greek slave, Orual pours out all her love onto Psyche. But the love that is given is with a price. Orual expects Psyche to listen and obey her since she took it upon herself to raise the girl. What seems like an idyllic life, is really ownership and manipulation masquerading as love. 

When Orual’s expectations cause a rift and banishment from Psyche, she takes to wearing a veil constantly. She succeeds her father to become Queen of Glome. While it seems her reign was a benefit to her subjects, her lifetime was spent harboring resentment to the goddess and to Psyche. “Weakness, and work, are two comforts the gods have not taken from us,” she says. While I can understand that work can be a comfort, I’m still trying to see how weakness can be comforting. Perhaps in wearing the veil to hide her ugliness, which she perceives as her weakness, she finds comfort that she can see others while they cannot see her. 

What struck me most about this tale is that even though it takes place in a pre-Christian era, it could be a modern day story. With so many self-help programs and a culture that seeks its own interests, Orual is the figure of what life is like for so many who are just seeking to fulfill the “I.” The veil, to me, is a barrier so that she is not judged on her looks, yet extends beyond that to prevent her from truly seeing the others around her. The judgement passed on her for her looks is doubled back to everyone she encounters in the expectation of what-have-you-done-for-me. Prior to her death, she is given the opportunity to present her case, not just to the gods and goddesses, but to all who have passed before her as well, including her father and the Greek slave. It is at that time that her veil is removed and she begins to see the error of what she considered love. Love is willing the good of the other as other, not in a manipulation of what we want of them. It’s only when we truly see another person, without any veil or barrier of expectation, that we can love them with a pure heart.

One of my favorite parts of the story is in Orual’s later years, as she attends to Ungit’s feast. A peasant woman comes, rather dirty and disheveled, to plead her cause before the goddess. At first Orual is annoyed by the woman’s appearance; it is a sacred time, doesn’t the woman know she should clean herself up to present herself before the goddess? Yet after laying prostrate and crying before the statue, the woman arises with a serenity that intrigues Orual. The woman responds to her questions by saying, “Ungit has given me great comfort. There’s no goddess like Ungit.” 

Usually in reading books, you want to cheer for the narrator or the main character. However, from a vantage point of faith, it was hard to do this with one who is so anti-religion. Yet her attitude does give the opportunity for one to pause in reflection as to what one believes and why they believe it. While it is not a Christian story, there are Christian themes within the book. It was also beneficial to be able to discuss with others in the book club as we were reading the story to get their insight. I believe this is one of those stories that I can read again and again, finding different meanings and perspectives each time. 

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