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C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Face (Chapter 1)

            This is the second in a series on C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces (Faces).  The first piece stressed the importance of the title, the subtitle which states that Lewis is retelling a myth and finally the quotation from Shakespeare that concerns the relationship between love and conscience.  Now we’ll look at chapter one, which introduces the main characters and the setting, and very importantly, the narrative form of the novel.

            The first character mentioned is Orual.  She is the aged queen of Glome, a small pagan kingdom on the borders of Greek civilization.  There are three crucial points to note.  First, Orual is the narrator of the story.  What we are hearing is her perspective.  We need to be alert to the possibility that her perspective may be distorted.  Second, she is looking back on her life.  It is not just a relation of facts.  She wants to tell her story because it has some special significance.  This significance is the third point.  She believes that the story of her life reveals that the gods have treated her unjustly.  Faces is thus her accusation against the gods, “as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge” (3).  We should be looking for her reasons for believing that the gods have mistreated her.  We should ask whether her accusation is just and even whether one can rightly accuse the gods or God of wrongdoing.            

            The second character mentioned is the god who lives on the Grey Mountain.  He is the son of Ungit, whom the people of Glome serve.  Ungit is their name for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love.    Following Greek mythology, the son of Aphrodite, the god who lives on the Grey Mountain, is Cupid.  Orual claims that this god hates her.  As we read her complaint, we need to be looking for the reasons that Orual thinks that, ironically, the god of love hates her.  Obviously the gods are going to play a major role in this story, even though they do not answer Orual’s accusations, as she claims.

            Orual is writing in Greek, which she tells us was taught to her by her old master.  This is the Fox, whom she loves greatly.  The Fox is a Greek slave that Orual’s father, King Trom, had bought in the hopes that he would one day tutor a son.  The Fox represents Greek culture, especially reason.  Orual has written her accusation in Greek because she hopes that their wise men could judge whether her “complaint is right or whether the god could have defended himself if he had made an answer” (4).  Notice too that she writes, “Terrors and plagues are not an answer” (3).  Lewis will use the Fox to explore the role of reason in religion.  That the Fox, while extolling reason and denigrating the poets of religion, loves poetry and is ashamed of it is significant.  Inconsistencies such as these in the Fox point to a possible critique of reason.

            The last important figure in the first chapter is the Priest of Ungit.  Orual admits to being afraid of him because of “the holiness of the smell that hung about him” (11).  This was the Ungit smell, the smell of temple and its sacrifices.  Earlier Orual had described Ungit as a powerful goddess, whose temple was dark.  The Fox claims that the stories about the gods are lies and that “things come about by natural causes” (10).  Although Orual loves the Fox, she does not agree with him here.  She fears the gods.  They are not a lie.  They are a force to be reckoned with.

            As I thought about this chapter, it made me ask myself whether it is wrong to complain to God.  I would say yes and no.  There are several psalms that complain to God.  Especially relevant to Faces is Psalm 13:1.  “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?”  As God-inspired prayers, they are models for us and represent a legitimate prayer to God.  Orual’s complaint is different.  She accuses the gods of mistreatment.  She sounds more like Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law who claimed that the Lord had dealt bitterly and harshly with her (Ruth 1:20-21).

            What do you think about the legitimacy of complaining to God?  Do you have any insights to add to chapter 1?

15 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Face (Chapter 1)

  1. I would agree with your “yes and no.” As you have pointed out, many of the psalms are complaints that cry out to God for relief or an answer for what the writer is going through. As Pastor Bruce has said, “It is okay to ask God for an answer. It is not okay to demand one.” God is God and He can do whatever he wants to do with us. God can handle my complaints. I hope, though, that I don’t make a regular habit of only complaining when I speak with Him.

    1. You’re right, Ken. We must go to God even with our “complaints” born of tremendous need, but we never should think that God has acted unjustly. Although sometimes, I must admit, it is hard to see. We walk by faith not by sight.

  2. Bill, do you think there is some significance in the name Ungit? Did Lewis make the name up? Is it supposed to remind the reader of something else, like the name Magwitch does in Great Expectations? I have wondered each time I read the book.

    1. That’s a good question, Melody. I don’t know the answer. I’ve just always thought that it had such an ugly sound that conveyed the darkness of the temple. I’m pretty dense, however, I never even thought of Magwitch in Great Expectations. Thanks for mentioning that.

      1. We were just walking our dog around the block and I had an idea. I was commenting to my husband about something being pungent, let the reader understand, and I thought, “aha” maybe that is a sort of play on words that Lewis was after. He does talk about the smell of holiness associated with Ungit several times. It was just a thought.

        1. Melody, your suggestion sent me on a quest. I like you think that it is a play on words. I looked up pungent in the dictionary and it is derived from the Latin pungere “to prick.” However, I thought of the word “unguent” which is a salve or ointment. Interestingly enough it comes from the Latin unguere, which means “to smear” or “to anoint.” If my very bad Latin is right, then “ungit” in Latin has the meaning “it anoints” or appropriately here “she anoints.” Could this be what Lewis meant? Do we have any Lewis scholars out there? Maybe it’s the kind of thing that we can’t know for sure, but it sounds very possible. In any case, this is fun! Thanks.

  3. Orual is bombarded with some pretty harsh life events. I don’t think it’s wrong for her to state her case and be angry. She lost her mother, was continually reminded she does not have a beautiful face, loses the “step-mother” that was more like a sister to her and has to be responsible for her Middle sister that detests the inner beauty Orual and the Fox share in their learning.

    Forgive me if I’ve jumped ahead of chapter 1. I don’t have the book in front of me. However, I also think we can learn from the “faces” theme by digging deeper into the topic of beauty. The choir of girls must have veiled faces because of Orual’s outer face, but she proves to be the more useful daughter in her love of learning (again, I apologize if I’ve passed through chap 1.)

    At this point we don’t know if her complaint against the gods is truly valid. Yet, as Job questioned his fate, I wonder if that is a face we can see of Orual’s. There is a life lesson here I don’t want to miss. We have the opportunity of a relationship with our God. She has none. Also, our God can handle our pain and allows us to come boldly before Him. Whereas, Orual feared the mountain of Ungit and had no relationship.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. You are right that Orual has no relationship with the god of the mountain, at least not a positive one. I certainly believe that we should come boldly before God, even making our complaints. I think the problem is that Orual does not have faith. She accuses the gods of injustice. I don’t think that we should ever do that. We’ll have to see where Lewis takes us to determine for sure about Orual’s heart.

      Your mentioning of the issue of physical beauty, especially with the importance that is given to it in our culture for girls is an important theme. Being called or at least made to feel ugly for a young woman must be devastating, I imagine. I’ve often wondered how female readers feel about Lewis’s portrayal of Orual. Is it true to life? It seems so to me, but then I’m not a woman! I’d love to hear what you and others think of that.

  4. Bill, your very bad Latin is actually quite good. I have wondered about the meaning of Ungit myself, though, in my limited reading of Lewis, I have found him a bit more complex (mysterious/veiled?) than Dickens in his use of names.

    Orual’s complaint intrigues me. I find myself torn between sympathizing with her complaint and being put off by her seeming irreverence. At this point, she is in control of the narrative. As the story unfolds, we may be better able to identify her distortions.

    Orual’s physical beauty, or the ugliness which vexes her, may in fact prove to color her perspective and thus the story. There is certainly more to faces in this book than meets the eye.

    1. Good comments, Brett. We do need to be patient to see how Orual’s character develops and also remember that she is telling the story; so we’re getting her perspective. I think too that her physical ugliness is more important than I had previously thought.

  5. Orual’s physical imperfections are very important. The first memory she recounts is the death of her mother. Readers can get so caught up in the sympathy one should feel for a child that has lost a parent that we don’t really look closely at the memory. She has no refections on her mother’s life or their relationship. Instead she relates that both she and Redival had to cut off their hair and that while everyone regretted the loss of Redival’s golden curls, no one said anything about Orual’s hair. Thus, her first memory is of being conscious of being ugly and also sets up a competition between her and Redival regarding attention and approval from others. Orual says essentially that she is aware of and has come to terms with her ugliness but many people say that about their problems and imperfections while the truth is just the opposite.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. This is really helpful. In fact, these interchanges are opening my eyes to several things that I hadn’t seen before. I was aware, obviously, of Orual’s ugliness but hadn’t thought much about it before this reading. Your last point strikes me as very important. We often deceive ourselves in this way, which then means that the problem surfaces in a different place and often is worse than before.

  6. Complaining to God is very different from complaining about God. Orual complains about the gods rather than making any attempt to reconcile with them. Many people in scripture complain to God. In Numbers 11, Moses asks God why he must bear the burden of the Israelites, whom he did not give birth to. Hannah, mother of Samuel, weeps to the Lord in “bitter distress” and begs God to remember her. Gideon asks the angel of the Lord how God could be with him if so many terrible things have happened (Judges 6). All three of these people are used mightily by God even after they complain to him.

    1. Good points. I think that in an open and healthy relationship with God we speak our mind but with the desire to understand and to deepen our relationship with him, even when we are feeling disappointed and frustrated.
      By the way, I don’t think that I know you. Are you doing a research project on Till We Have Faces?

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