Genesis tells us humans were created in the image of God. The rest of history shows that in essentially every culture throughout the world, humans have returned the favor, imaging the divine in the likeness of us (or at least, like ‘me’).
From the back cover:
Haunted by the myth of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life, C. S. Lewis wrote this, his last, extraordinary novel, to retell their story through the gaze of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Disfigured and embittered, Orual loves her younger sister to a fault and suffers deeply when she is sent away to Cupid, the God of the Mountain. Psyche is forbidden to look upon the god’s face, but is persuaded by her sister to do so; she is banished for her betrayal. Orual is left alone to grow in power but never in love, to wonder at the silence of the gods. Only at the end of her life, in visions of her lost beloved sister, will she hear an answer.
As far as synopses go, that’s a pretty good one in terms of identifying the flow of the narrative. It is Lewis’ most unique work (that I’ve read anyway) in that there is very little overtly ‘Christian’ about it, though in the book he certainly probed some theological depths that have implications upon various parts of what Socrates would call the ‘examined life’ that other of Lewis’ works don’t portray nearly as vividly as this one. In this masterpiece, Lewis seemed to be wrestling deeply with the ideas of innocence, identity, charisma and power as the main character (Orual) undergoes significant changes throughout her lifetime. Love is revealed, both in some of its purest forms as well as in some rather unflattering and distorted ways, such as jealousy. The nature of sacrifice and theodicy come into play and perhaps the most significant undercurrent is the theme of ugliness vs. beauty, which especially shows up in the ‘veiling’ of two characters—one that is human (Orual) and one divine (Cupid). But amidst it all, ultimately this book is about the relationship between the divine and mortal.
That’s why I began this post as I did with the statement about Genesis, humans and the image of God. This is very much on display throughout the book as nearly all the figures project their own concepts, ideologies and even faults upon the character and image of the gods. There is little, if any, room allowed by several of the people to wonder that perhaps the gods may have different qualities altogether than humans and aren’t just the sovereign possessors of everyone’s fate. For instance, in an encounter with Psyche after the offering, she reveals to her sister Orual the nature of her relationship with Cupid, that she is forbidden to look at him. This implies, to Orual at least, that the god’s face is something too ugly or terrible to be unveiled. The only type of figure who would not desire to be looked upon is someone who is ashamed of their appearance. This, however, likely reveals less about the nature of things and tells us more about Orual’s presumptions, who struggled with her own appearance and wore a veil over her face to cover her perceived ugliness, and those of all created beings who encounter hideous displays of ugliness and oppression. Orual’s action to veil her appearance would become a source of strength and was one way that aided her successful reign over Glome, her nation. Her veil ended up making her appearance carry different sorts of myths among the people as they surmised various reasons for why her face was covered. These myths established and built up her power and put her in conversation with the gods, which is typical of many monarchs throughout history.
But the fact remained, even after Psyche’s attempt to get Orual to see things from a different angle, that Orual only perceived that a god could only have ulterior motives to prevent Psyche from beholding him completely. A level of such trust or obedience that could be achieved between Cupid and Psyche, or even of the need to mask ultimate beauty (rather than ugliness) would be a potential reason for their seemingly odd behaviors—these never crossed Orual’s mind as reasonably possible. In that world, for Orual and others, the character of the gods (if they really existed) could be little if at all different than ugly, manipulative human beings like us. Granted, not even the more noble reasons were among those of why Cupid forbade Psyche to look upon him. But you’ll have to read the book for more on that. 😉
Still, I found myself reflecting on our tendency as humans in a broken world to do like Orual—to project upon the divine our own characteristics, experiences or ways of thinking. Take, for example, this common statement proclaimed by many theists: “God is (like a) Father.” In response to this, the immediate vision that enters the mind of many is that God must be like the father types we’ve known or (for those of us who are fathers) like we are ourselves. For many, this is an unfortunate association because some have only known an erratic, irresponsible, hateful or distant and apathetic figure that occupied the space known as “dad” or “father.” So a picture emerges of a cosmic anger-laden figure with his eyebrows furrowed ready to smite us with one single command all because of something stupid we’ve done, something we’ve done in ignorance, or just because he’s in a bad mood. An out-of-control god. They don’t need to hear “God has wrath” in order to believe it and operate under this as their primary way of viewing the divine reality.
But what is marvelous about Lewis’ framing of the book the way he does is that the whole tenor of the first, and overwhelmingly largest, part of it is couched as a complaint to the gods for the way things are. Like Job, Orual protests that something, someone was wrongfully taken from her and that neither she nor the victim did anything to deserve it. She engages what she knows of the gods, at times apparently committing blasphemy but her charge only reveals that she really could only see things a certain number of ways, none of which completely aligned with ultimate reality. This was because she could not see for herself until she was given the face with the eyes to perceive the mystery that lay behind it all.
There is so much more to share about this and perhaps I’ll write more about it again soon, but that’s all I’m going to say for now. If you have the means to get the book, get it and read it. There is great tragedy and even though there is a good deal of closure by the time the book comes to a close, there are still lots of unanswered questions, which is the nature of things “while we still see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” Yeah, I bet that has a lot to do with Lewis’ way of telling the story.