When Silence Is the Answer: Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and an Ancient Answer to the Problem of Evil

‘My God why have you forsaken me? To bend means to lie. If there is a god, he must ask me forgiveness’. This is a quote famously said to have been carved into a wall at Mauthausen, one of the numerous concentration camps used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews. [1] The sentiment of this line gives words to a feeling that many among humankind have felt, tearfully shouting about their miseries to a seemingly cold and disinterested universe. This emotional reaction to pain and tragedy brings many to look to the ancient words of Epicurus as their prosecutor to present their charges against God; to Epicurus, Lactantius attributes these words:

‘God,’ he [Epicurus] says, ‘either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot,
or can but does not want to,
or neither wishes to nor can,
or both wants to and can.
If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god.
If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful which is equally foreign to god’s nature.
If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god.
If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?’ [2]

Lactantius and later Christian apologists have found this charge of Epicurus to be quite possibly the most pressing issue that Christianity has to face; thus, it is not one that can be answered lightly. The character Orual in Till We Have Faces, C S Lewis’s recreation of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, shares in this questioning of the gods as her hideous looks, royal blood, and cruel father seem to bring her nothing but misery with no hope of respite. She curses the God of the Grey Mountain as the source of her anguish, citing the same complaints that mankind has traditionally aimed at God or the gods: ‘I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge. But there is no judge between gods and men’. [3] Orual’s journey through tragedy and self-pity brings to light two key factors in humankind’s emotional reaction to the problem of evil that many may not at first consider: first, the possibility that we may play a large part in the creation and sustaining of our own misery; second, the question of what we can learn from the verbal silence of an all-powerful God in the face of the pain we experience.

Justly or unjustly, Orual finds many reasons to be bitter and miserable within the span of her life: the ugliness she was born with, the beauty and perceived stupidity of her sister Redival, the physical cruelty of her father towards her, her royal responsibilities, and the supposed betrayal of her half-sister Psyche. Above all, she believes she has been denied love in all of its forms:

‘No man will love you, though you gave your life for him, unless you have a pretty face. So (might it not be?), the gods will not love you (however you try to pleasure them, and whatever you suffer) unless you have that beauty of soul. In either race, for the love of men or the love of a god, the winners and losers are marked out from birth. We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny’. [4]

The reader will find Orual to be a very imperfect narrator as she can only write from her own limited perspective. One may feel a sense of deep dramatic irony, especially if he or she is familiar with Lewis’s nonfiction companion The Four Loves, as Orual’s monologues about that which she loves shift into explanations for hatred and selfishness. Orual’s most jarring monologue is one in which she describes her fury at her sister’s marriage to the Grey God. She makes it clear that she would prefer for Psyche to have been killed than to be happy with another and no longer in her possession. [5] Orual, as avatar for all humankind, experiences what Lewis writes about in The Four Loves on the subject: ‘If Affection is made the absolute sovereign of a human life the seeds will germinate. Love, having become a god, becomes a demon’. [6]

In Orual’s mind, her misery is out of her control as she plays the part of the tireless martyr.

It becomes clear, however, that she is offered chances at peace, and perhaps even happiness, but denies them in favour of holding on to her bitterness and hatred.

When she looks upon the beautiful valley past the Grey Mountain, she stifles the joyful feelings it brings:

‘“Why should your heart not dance? It’s the measure of my folly that my heart almost answered, Why not? I had to tell myself over like a lesson the infinite reasons it had not to dance. My heart to dance? Mine whose love was taken from me, I, the ugly princess who must never look for other love, the drudge of the King, the jailer of hateful Redival, perhaps to be murdered or turned out as a beggar when my father died. … Was I not right to struggle against this fool-happy mood? … Reason called for it. I knew the world too well to believe this sudden smiling’. [7]

One might see the first viewing of this wondrous valley to be a gift from the gods to Orual, an unspoken reassurance that there is beauty and meaning to the universe, but her ego (which mirrors the ego of humanity) would not allow such a thought. Orual even catches a glimpse of the palace of the God of the Mountain, the one Psyche claimed to live in, but she doubts and dismisses even her own eyes in favour of the disbelief and anger. She remains resolute in her white-knuckled grasping of her tragedy and despair with no plans to let them go, then turns to numbness to avoid evaluating her part in her own tragedy: ‘Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. … The nearest thing we have to a defence against them … (is to be) sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one’. [8]

This brings about the potent question each person must ask of themselves: how much of our misery are we at fault for? It becomes clear as the novel goes on that Orual takes the seeds of tragedy bestowed upon her by forces beyond her control and makes a garden of misery which she can attribute to her own tireless hard work. In the end, it is finally revealed to her that she has become the very goddess, Ungit, that she always despised. In this, the apologist might answer Epicurus’s questions with questions of his or her own: Are we not all Orual? When humanity is offered some means of joy to weaken or replace misery, do many not often respond like she did— ‘I don’t want it. I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Do you understand’— perhaps intent to hold onto misery like a beloved trophy? [9] Is there some sort of perverse pleasure one gets from complaint?

In her first book, Orual’s chief complaint with the God of the Grey Mountain is his apparent lack of attempt to answer any of her questions or save her from her misery, yet she feels he is constantly demanding things from her, things she cannot bear to part with. She often conflates his silence with hatred, and a silent god makes an excellent scapegoat, as she can also assume his deliberate lack of answers to be his inability to answer. In the beginning of her first book, she proclaims that ‘the god of the mountain will not answer me. Terrors and plagues are not an answer’. She then wonders if the reader of the book’s wise men might be able to discover ‘whether the god could have defended himself if he had made an answer,’ showing that she had already decided that the god had not nor could not answer her. [10] This is a common attitude that many have towards the very concept of God, as evidenced by the viral level of popularity that Walter’s quote from the concentration camp mentioned earlier still enjoys, with many seeing God’s verbal silence as damning evidence of either his reluctance, inability, or simply his non-existence in the Epicurean manner.

Orual’s second book, however, finds her finally able to lay out her complaints before the gods themselves. With them on trial and her as accuser, the gods seem far grander and less brutish than she had assumed. She is in the very position of Job, only to discover that all the romance and magniloquence of her previous writings are siphoned out as she begins to read them. [11] The large narrative she had written on her entire life is abbreviated to her actual complaint, which turns out to be far more like the diary of a selfish child than a grand memoir of a martyr, as she speaks her true feelings about the gods taking her half-sister Psyche from her:

‘Taken where we can’t follow. It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We’d rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal. But to steal her love from me, to make her see things I couldn’t see . . . oh, you’ll say (you’ve been whispering it to me these forty years) that I’d signs enough her palace was real, could have known the truth if I’d wanted. But how could I want to know it? Tell me that. The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? You’ll say I was jealous. Jealous of Psyche? Not while she was mine’. [12]

Epicurus’s questions are turned on humanity; Orual’s language transforms from words of inability to that of refusal.

She comes face to face with perhaps the chief sin of humankind: the will to possess all beauty that we cannot attain for ourselves, to enslave it and place it under our feet.

She comes to understand the meaning behind the silence of the gods through the revealed meaning of her own words:

‘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?’ [13]

Orual’s realization of her intentions and the folly of her constant accusations echoes the words of the Babylonian Theodicy:

Adept scholar, master of erudition,
you blaspheme in the anguish of your thoughts.
Divine purpose is as remote as innermost heaven;
it is too difficult to understand, people cannot understand it. […] Even if one tries to apprehend divine intention, people cannot understand it. [14]

She finds that she is ‘silenced by joy’ when she is able to see her misery for what it is, the fruit of her own labour. [15] Only then is she released from her personal prison to quit the constant loop of complaint in her soul, trading it for a silent joy. This brings about redemption, her realisation like a baptism of her mind. An apologist might ask one who screams a demand for answers to the sky, ‘Would you still want an answer if it came to you in the form of a piercing incomprehensible language, one that shatters the eardrums; or even worse, the realisation that you played the largest part in your own anguish?’ It is a funny habit of humankind to constantly ask questions which we do not wish to hear an answer for; we call them rhetorical. Perhaps if we were to truly listen to our own complaints for what they are, we might recognize how truly ridiculous many of our demands sound. Only after we have finally stopped to listen might we experience God as Elijah did, through the silence which might even lead them to same joyful redemption as Orual. [16]

I have suggested that Orual’s relationship with the God of the Grey Mountain holds numerous apologetic implications as it parallels the relationship of humanity to God, the two largest being humankind’s part in its own misery and the verbal silence of an all-powerful God in the face of tragedy.  The plight of Orual brings to mind the questions of Epicurus himself. Being both versed in philosophy as well as religion, the apologist finds himself or herself in a peculiar place, lodged between the bright Greek logic of the Fox and the dark, thick understanding of the priest of Ungit. [17] The idea might occur when reading Till We Have Faces that the position of Orual is the position of all mankind, wary of trusting or believing in anything that we cannot comprehend and thus stuck in a constant loop of misery, some unavoidable but much self-inflicted. Perhaps through the discovery of this loop it might finally end, and we might open ourselves up to the redemptive answers of the Divine Silence. Orual, Queen of Glome and accuser of the gods, best writes the principle that Lewis perhaps hoped all readers of his final work of fiction would come to, abandoning the idea of the god inside her and the boastful claim of ‘I am’ even as her pen falls to the floor and life itself leaves her body:

‘I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might— [she passed away before she could finish]’. [18]

[1] Brian Walters, Searching for the Holy Grail (Virtualbookworm.com, 2004), 165.

[2] Lactantius, On the Anger of God, 13.19.

[3] C S Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 3. Kindle edition.

[4] Ibid., 282.

[5] Ibid., 292.

[6] C S Lewis, The Four Loves (Bridge Bilingual Classics. English-Chinese Bilingual Edition). (Harvest Book: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press), location 1392-1393. Kindle edition.

[7] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 86-96.

[8] Ibid., 75-76.

[9] Ibid., 124.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Job 10:1-7.

[12] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 291.

[13] Ibid., 294.

[14] W G Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 66.

[15] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 314.

[16] 1 Kings 19:11-13.

[17] Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 126.

[18] Ibid., 307.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,469,609 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments