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C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces Chapter 5

            Chapter 5 begins a series of seven important chapters that will be central to understand Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.  In this chapter we have a crucial exposition of the ways of the goddess Ungit by her priest, an animated debate between the Priest of Ungit and the Fox, which is a dispute between religious mystery and human rationalism, and finally more evidence of the differences between the Fox and Orual over religion.

            The Priest tells the king that because mortals had been “aping the gods and stealing the worship due to the gods” (47), expiation must be made.  Expiation is the removal of guilt by means of a sacrifice.  Because the sin of acting like a god and receiving worship was so grave and had polluted the land, the sacrifice of “bulls and rams will not win Ungit’s favour” (45).  The king understands that a human sacrifice is being demanded.  When he suggests offering a thief, the Priest counters, “We must find the Accursed.  And she (or he) must die by the rite of the Great Offering” (46).

            It is obvious that the Accursed is Psyche, even though the Priest has not explicitly named her yet.  Orual and the Fox recognize this, and the Fox rises to the defense.  In the scene that follows Lewis powerfully depicts the clash between Greek rationalism and pagan religious mystery.  The debate will concern the nature both of the Brute and the Accursed.

            The Priest states that the Great Offering must be made because the Brute has been seen.  As evidence of the Brute’s presence, he relates how a shepherd encountered a lion at night.  The torch that the shepherd was carrying revealed the Brute, “very black and big, a terrible shape” (47).  The Fox’s counters that the sleepy shepherd mistook a shadow thrown by his own torch for a monster. 

            The Priest is unimpressed.  “That is the wisdom of the Greeks,” he says.  Even if it were true, it would not matter because “Many say it is a shadow” (48).  In fact, “Those who have seen it closest can least say what it is like” (47).  This is because the nature of the Brute is a mystery.  The Brute is “Ungit herself or Ungit’s son, the god of the Mountain, or both” (48).  Clearly, the categories of human reason are not strictly applicable to the divine nature.

            The Priest proceeds to explain the Great Sacrifice.  The victim must be perfect because, if a woman, she is the bride of Ungit’s son and lies with him.  Whether man or woman, the victim is also the Brute’s supper.  Either way “there is a devouring. … many different things are said … many sacred stories … many great mysteries.  Some say the loving and the devouring are all the same thing” (49). 

            The Fox pounces.  The contradictions of the religion of Glome make it nonsensical.  How can a shadow be an animal which is also a goddess who is also a god?  How can loving be eating?  How can the Accursed be both wicked and perfect, a victim and married to the god?  “It can’t be both” (49-50).

            The Priest’s response is a classic defense of the validity of religious mystery against the critique of human rationality and deserves to be quoted at length. 


                        Greek wisdom” cannot understand “holy things.  They demand to

                        see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters

                        written in a book. … they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of

                        one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly

                        can be said truly about them.  Holy places are dark places.  It is

                        life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them.

                        Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark

                        like blood.  Why should the Accursed not be both the best and the

                        worst? (50).


            Orual sees that the Priest is stronger than the Fox.  She also sees that the Fox was wrong to look on the Priest as “a mere schemer and a politic man who put into the mouth of Ungit whatever might most increase his own power and lands or most harm his enemies” (54).  The Priest is unafraid of the King’s threat to kill him.  He believes in Ungit.  Orual’s conclusion, so different from the Fox’s views, is crucial for understanding her.  “Our real enemy was not a mortal.  The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness” (54).  She too believes in the gods and hates them.

            This chapter raises several questions for me.  I’ll highlight two.  First, what is the proper relationship between human reason and religious mystery?  The Fox’s view of religion as a priestly creation to oppress others has been a common place of rationalism since the Enlightenment.  While I admit that I always have been drawn more to mystery than to reason and that I do believe that the rationalist charge is not true historically, I see the danger.  Do we just throw out human reason and morality?  Is not all then permissible? 

            G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, a book that greatly influenced Lewis even before his conversion, argued that Christianity reconciled the pagan poet or myth maker, representative of pagan religion, and the philosopher, representative of pagan reason.  Both human reason and imagination are paradoxically transcended and affirmed in the great truth of the Incarnation.  Neither human philosophizing nor human storytelling can proceed unbounded.  They find their proper limit within the rule of faith.  There they can run freely within the pattern of the truth of Jesus Christ.

            The other question has to do with people who believe in the existence of God or gods when they are confronted with devastating tragedy, such as Orual faced.  The doubt is not about the existence of God but about his goodness.  It seems to me that the answer is faith, but a faith that drives us to question our hopes our values and even our very selves when we are disappointed.

            What do you think about these two questions?  What other questions do you have?

2 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces Chapter 5

  1. I like the fox.
    What does he want? He wants his freedom and he wants to return home.
    Even though he has developed intimate relationships with these characters who in some cases he truly loves and cares for he still wants his freedom. Being logical though he realizes he is playing a waiting game. He doesn’t want to be chased down and killed when he leaves.

    So what is he to do while he waits? I suggest he kinda wants to have a little fun. He’s committed to his responsibilities to the king because this is the way home and more so to the girls he has come to love as a father does his own daughters.

    I think, given the opportunity, the fox is out of there as soon as the door is open for him, his relationships with the girls notwithstanding.
    Regardless of his views on religion, the fox is not going to abandon human reason and morality.

    The fox knows human reason and morality certainly exist without religion.

    Religion must serve some other need. I’m not sure the fox is too concerned about the need that religion serves.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I like the Fox too, and he has to want to go home. It does seem that he has no place for religion, but I think it’s because he doesn’t allow for anything that doesn’t fit in with his view of how things must be.

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