I have invited the readers who visit Living Our Days to join me in reading C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and to return here each Thursday for a discussion. If you’re just joining us, you can find the reading schedule here and last week’s discussion here.
Living on this country hill in Maine, it’s easy to feel as if I’m a throw back to an earlier time. My clothesline and my garden; the rows of canning jars full of colorful vegetables and homemade spaghetti sauce in the furnace room; the daily task of sweeping the bark and wood chips off the floor around the wood stove all tend to keep me well-grounded in the past.
However, a quick reading of the first seven verses of Hebrews 9 lets me know that I am not as comfortable in the past as I might imagine. The author describes the Tabernacle, it’s furnishings and fittings, the sacred relics in the Ark of the Covenant, and the priestly activities that were part and parcel of relating to God under the Old Covenant. The words that come to my mind when I picture the scene have nothing to do with worship: foreign, distant, and even frightening seem more descriptive.
I can just barely imagine the priest entering the Most Holy Place, cringing over his own sinful condition, his hands carrying the blood of an animal. It gives the words “forgive my hidden faults” a whole new urgency, doesn’t it?
When C.S. Lewis created the land of Glome, he gave it a Priest and a religious system whose currency was the blood of bulls and goats. His main protagonist, Orual, had a good many things out of whack theologically, but her radar was tuned in to holiness, and since the narrative of Till We Have Faces is from her point of view, Ungit’s Priest comes across as both frightening and holy. His actions in Chapters 4-6 reveal an authenticity that neither The Fox nor the King possessed, and which remained solid even with the King’s dagger pressing against his rib cage.
After a mere four pages of pure sisterly bliss, Orual and Pyche’s bond seems doomed to destruction. Famine, pestilence, drought, “certain expectation of war” in Glome, starving lions foraging nearby for food, and the King’s inability to secure a male heir to the throne have made for desperate times and restless subjects. Rumor has it that Ungit’s son, The Beast, is on the move and must be appeased with the blood of a perfect sacrifice. The priestly lot has fallen upon Psyche who was immediately imprisoned. We are introduced to Bardia, captain of the palace guard (and a practical materialist), who is set to secure the prison from all visitors, but who relents and opens the door out of pity for Psyche and respect for Orual, allowing the sisters to have what they believe to be their final visit.
While C.S. Lewis’s views on inerrancy were not completely orthodox, it is clear from his writing that he held Holy Scripture as an authority and guide for his life. A favorite illustration of this comes in The Silver Chair in which Jill Pole is given the four signs that she is to repeat faithfully every single day so that when she needs to know them, she will have them at hand. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to find with this reading of Till We Have Faces that Biblical allusions were jumping off the page at every turn. I will share the quotes and their corresponding Scripture references below as an invitation for your reflection:
“‘Bulls and rams and goats will not win Ungit’s favour while the land is impure,’ said the Priest.” (45)
Isaiah 1:11 – “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats.”
Hebrews 10:4 – “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.”
“The Brute is, in a mystery, Ungit herself or Ungit’s son, the god of the Mountain; or both.” (47)
Colossians 2:9 – “In Him (Jesus, God the Son) dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”
“Our real enemy was not a mortal. The room was full of spirits . . .” (54)
Ephesians 6:12 – “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
“It’s only sense that one should die for many.” (61)
John 18:14 – Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.
Of course there are more. Did I miss your favorite?
Some Issues to Ponder
Shame is a theme that was rooted in Chapters 1-3, but carries forward full blown into this section. Orual is continually berated and shamed by the King for her ugliness. He called her “curd face,” (18) and “goblin daughter,” (26) , but, sadly, she was hearing words of shame about her appearance before she was even old enough to understand what it all meant, (“See if you can make her wise; it’s about all she’ll ever be good for”). (7)
The tables are turned when the King reveals his true cowardly colors in his relief that Ungit is requiring the death of his daughter Psyche — and not himself.
“(And this is the greatest shame I have to tell of in my whole life.”) His [the King’s] face cleared. I had thought that he had seen the arrow pointed at Psyche all along, had been afraid for her, fighting for her. He had not thought of her at all, nor of any of us.” (54)
And later . . .
“King,” said I, “the blood of the gods is in us. Can such a house as ours bear the shame? How will it sound if men say when you are dead that you took shelter behind a girl to save your own life?” (60)
Bardia’s fine act of courage at the end of chapter six foreshadows the larger role he will play later in the book, but if that is not enough, what do you make of this heart-stopping line from his warrior’s heart:
“Do the gods know what it feels like to be a man?” (66)
This is yet another example of Lewis’s incredible ability to tranfer foundational Christian verities into strange contexts that make them live in new ways. When I read Philippians 2 and commentary on Jesus’ coming “in the likeness of man” that we celebrate in the incarnation, I appreciate the truth of the God Man, but when I read Bardia’s wrenching question, soft-hearted mercy from a hard-handed man who leaves matters of the gods to the “great ones,” I can feel the answering “YES” in my very bones.
For me, C.S. Lewis’s writing is an invitation to look along the shaft of light that his metaphors provide, and to see the truth with greater clarity.
I’ve shared what I noticed this week, and now I hope that you will share your thoughts on chapters four through six in the comments below. Again, feel free to share links to any blog posts that you have written in response, and to pose questions that have come to you in your reading.
Next Thursday, I’ll be here having read Chapters 7-9 and will look forward to meeting with you again.
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