Commentary on C. S. Lewis, Till we have Faces: A Myth Retold: Pt. 4
The Hiddenness of God and the Appearance of Injustice
This is part 4 of a blog series on C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here. The main theme of this book, or, at least, the explicitly stated purpose of this myth, is the injustice of the gods. Lewis had already published, in 1940, his well-known work on the problem of evil, The Problem of Pain. Though Lewis, when he wrote The Problem of Pain, claims that he had not had a difficult life, it is to be noted that he had lost his mother as a young boy—and event which had affected him greatly, and had served in the second World War, losing many friends. It is interesting to note that this book was published in 1956, the same year that Lewis was married to Joy Davidman in a civil ceremony (April) and later in a religious ceremony (December), after having learned that Joy was diagnosed with Cancer (October). The years preceding 1956 were very busy, as Lewis found himself having to take care of the ailing Mrs. Moore and swamped with responsibilities at the university.
This book could be described as one giant theodicy—an attempt to explain how evil fits into God’s overall plan for the world. As we fully consider the questions asked and answered in this myth, we are reminded of a book that Lewis published a little less than 10 years after the death of Joy—A Grief Observed. We can’t help thinking, as we read them together, that the very same ideas that Lewis brought out in Till We Have Faces, haunted him as he dealt with the death of his wife, and sought the face of God in his grief. We will point out the parallels in thought as we go along.
Orual begins the book by noting that it’s purpose is to “accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain.” What is wrong with the God on the Grey Mountain? “The god of the Grey mountain”, says Orual,” who hates me, is the son of Ungit.” Orual is convinced that the god of the Grey Mountain, the son of the Goddess Ungit, is out to destroy all her happiness, and she sets out to prove it by writing this book—A Case against the Gods. After having been directly addressed by the god of the Mountain, who explained what was to happen to Psyche, Orual states, “Now that I’d proved for certain that the gods are and that they hated me, it seemed that I had nothing to do but to wait for my punishment.” The theme of the injustice or evil of the gods comes up frequently in this book, and Orual’s complaints against the gods are many. For example, when the Fox denies the very existence of the gods, Orual complains to Psyche that “It never entered his mind—he was too good—to believe that the gods are real, and viler than the vilest men.” They must be so, to allow the beautiful Psyche to be taken away as a sacrifice to the god of the Mountain.
As Orual is describing her journey to bury Psyche’s body, we find her reasoning to herself and concluding that, “I did not know then, however, as I do now, the strongest reason for distrust. The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony.” This very thought came to Lewis’s mind not long after the death of his beloved wife Joy, when, in his A Grief Observed, he writes, “A noble hunger, long unsatisfied, met at last its proper food, and almost instantly the food was snatched away. Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf.” A little later he writes, “Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.” These claims are essentially the polar opposite of his argument from Joy and Desire, and they are the very substance of Orual’s case against the gods: “You have continually held beauty, goodness, and happiness before my eyes, but snatched it away just before I could obtain it.” As Orual later says, “It was of course the gods’ old trick; blow the bubble up big before you prick it.”
Another of Orual’s complaints against the gods, and, indeed, one of the primary complaint of the book, is that the gods refuse to answer her or to let her know what is going on and why, and what is expected of her. We see this complaint all throughout the book, as when she muses, after having found Psyche, “Perhaps this gladness of mine is one of the things the gods have against me. They never tell.” Later, having been told that she is standing on the very step of a castle which she cannot see, she states, “And now we are coming to that part of my history on which my charge against the gods chiefly rests.” What happens? Psyche attempts to convince Orual that there is a god, a castle, delicious wine, and great robes, but all that Psyche sees is rags, water and the mountain. After an argument, in which Orual is sent back across the river by Psyche, Orual is given a glimpse of the castle, “This is another of the things to be guessed. For when I lifted my head and looked once more into the mist across the water, I saw that which brought my heart into my throat. There stood the palace, grey—as all things were grey in that hour and place—but solid and motionless, wall within wall, pillar and arch and architrave, acres of it, a labyrinthine beauty.”
Yes, she saw it, but, as the very first line of our quote states, she immediately doubts the truth of what she sees, for, as she rises, the castle vanishes. “And now,” says Orual “you who read, give judgement. That moment when I either saw or thought I saw the House—does it tell against the gods or against me? Would they (if they answered) make it a part of their defence? Say it was a sign, a hint, beckoning me to answer the riddle one way rather than the other?” She allows, for a fleeting instance, that perhaps the gods had really let her see the castle, but then she states, “What easier, even, than for the gods themselves to send the whole ferly for a mockery? Either way, there’s divine mockery in it. They set the riddle and then allow a seeming that can’t be tested and can only quicken and thicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guess-work. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain? Psyche could speak plain when she was three; do you tell me the gods have not yet come so far?” The gods do not answer, and just when we think they are answering, they slip away laughing at our wondering and tormented heart. Her complaint is stated very clearly, near the end of book 1, when she sates, “I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be the 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.”
This very same critique is found in the very first chapter of Lewis’s A Grief Observed, where Lewis writes, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
The answer to the first complaint (that the gods always lead us, with promises of fulfilled desire, into more suffering) is essentially found in the argument from desire. We were made for another world, and there is nothing in this world that can fulfill our deepest desires. Those lingering longings for the transcendent were not given to fulfill, but to point us beyond our world to the God who created it and is calling us to himself. We will look, in the next section, at how Lewis develops the argument from desire in this work. For now, let’s look at the answer to the second complaint against the gods—that they are silent, and, worse, absent.
The answer to this complaint hinted at throughout the book, culminating in the key statement of the whole story. First, Orual does not want to accept the answers to her questions, even when they are given to her directly. We see Orual being told about the invisible castle, but, not only does she not see it (at first), she does not want to see it. When she is given a glimpse of the castle, she prefers to rationalize it away rather than to believe that it is possible for Psyche to have found happiness in something other than in Orual.
Secondly, we see Orual becoming more and more aware of her ugliness, as the story progresses, to the point where she ends up putting on a veil, which she wears permanently, to cover it up. Her physical ugliness, however, is not the key to this point, but an introduction to a deeper problem. A very revealing quote in the book has her telling us about one of the rumours that is circulating about the woman behind the veil, “The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness.” She later describes Ungit as the Goddess with no face, and in that very same chapter she comes to the realization that she is Ungit. That is, “To say that I was Ungit meant that I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged.” She arrives at the conclusion that she is ugly both physically and, more importantly, spiritually, “I could mend my soul no more than my face. Unless the gods helped. And why did the gods not help?”
Thirdly, in the second book, a dream brings her to the realization that the seeming injustices bestowed on us by the gods did not have the purpose of destroying us, but of waking us up. Orual proclaims that “the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is.” Yet, proclaims Orual, “they did not kill me,” and this action was not an action so much of anger but of joy. It is at this point that she has a final vision, a vision in which she is given an audience with the gods. In this vision, she is brought face to face with the reality of who she is, and just how evil she is. She is forced to admit that she had seen the signs, that the gods had been revealing themselves to her throughout her entire life, but that she refused to listen. She refused to listen because she did not want to give up her only source of earthly pleasure—Psyche. She cries out, “There’s no room for you and us in the same world. You’re a tree in whose shadow we can’t thrive. We want to be our own. I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her.” We have here part of an answer to the question of all the injustice in the world. Going back through the book we realize that it was only “seeming” injustice! The gods had given Psyche precisely what she had desired, and the one who had been unjust was Orual—who had stolen from Psyche what she most desired! One of the answers to the problem of injustice in our world is humankind—we are the source of the evils that plague us. Furthermore, the truly painful experiences are allowed in order to wake us up, to make us realize that we are in need of the gods—as Orual realizes when she sees, finally, just how terrible and depraved she really is. As Lewis comes to admit in A Grief Observed, “Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”
What, then, is the answer? Why do the gods keep silent? Why do they not answer our cries of distress? Why do they not reveal their will? The reason why the gods seem so silent is that we refuse to listen—or, worse, that we have so blocked up our ears that we cannot hear them. “The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean…When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. 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?” In A Grief Observed, as he is working through his grief, Lewis comes to the realization that the silence of God, which plagued him early on in his grieving, took on a different sense, “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” God appears to be silent, not because He is, but because we are drowning out His voice, because we refused to listen, because we don’t want to hear the response that He is giving. This is the primary lesson of Till We Have Faces, God cannot speak to us, not because He lacks the ability to speak, but because we lack the ability to hear “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
Click here for Part 5: The Argument from Joy/Desire.
Lewis, Till We have Faces, 3.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 18.
Lewis, Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold, 222.
Cf. Ibid., 150, 243-250,
Lewis, A Grief Observed, 6.
Lewis, Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold, 228.
Lewis, A Grief Observed, 38.
Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 294.
Lewis, A Grief Observed, 46.
Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 294.