Believe it or not, the greatest romance ever written was not James Cameron’s Titanic.
I know, it comes as a shock to me, too. But in light of the quickly approaching holiday(Saint Valentine, you card-selling sell-out), I wanted to take a closer look at one of my favorite love stories of all time: Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.
If you know anything about literature, then you know who Lewis was. A member of the Oxford Inklings, Lewis is best known for his nonfiction works, along with a few fantastical books like The Screwtape Letters and, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Til We Have Faces was Lewis’s last novel. He wrote it in conjunction with his wife, which makes sense given the amount of insight the book gives into the main female character, Orual, which was lacking in all of Lewis’s previous books(Don’t forget, this is the man who kicked Susan out of Narnia and cited “lipstick and pantyhose” as the central offenders). In fact, it is these same insights that lend the book the depth and maturity it needs to transform from a good story into a legendary one.
Orual, as the story goes, is a princess in a fictional kingdom, close to the Grecian coast. Her life revolves around her younger sister, Istra, whom she calls Psyche, and who is as beautiful as she is ugly. After a variety of plagues hit the country, the kingdom’s high priest demands a member of the royal family be sacrificed: Psyche.
Orual isn’t able to save her sister from her fate, that of being left for dead for the god of the mountain, the son of a pagan goddess named Ungit. When she goes to recover to her sister’s body, however, she discovers that things aren’t what they seem.
This story, while original, is trapped in two contrasting concepts. The majority of the plot is based upon the Greek myth of Cupid(yes, the diapered baby-god of love) and Psyche. But at the same time, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that by the end of the story, Lewis has transformed their love story into, as previously stated, the greatest love story of all time: the love between God and his church.
I read this book for the first time back in high school. It’s not what I would call an “easy read,” although the writing itself is easy to follow. But the narrative is so full of symbolism that it was difficult, and still is, to some extents, to figure out exactly what Lewis is talking about sometimes.
Some things are simple. Cupid, the God of the mountain, represents Christ. Psyche, his bride, represents God’s chosen people. Orual, as the narrator, is a person who has not yet been redeemed, who tries to live her life by means of her own wisdom, strength, and power, forsaking the gods in the name of her own glory. But there is one character who I’ve always been confused by, who has never made much sense: Ungit, the mother of pagan gods.
Ungit is not a real person. She is represented in the temple by a black, faceless rock, smoothed to near-perfection. Her priests offer sacrifices that even Orual finds disturbing; her followers are depicted as bloodthirsty, heartless, and cruel.
But Ungit is also the mother of Cupid, the story’s Christ-figure. How can a reader reconcile the very picture of paganism with that of a loving and merciful God?
I found my answer in an unexpected place. This past May, I visited an Anglican church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where C.S. Lewis’s grandfather had been the rector. The building itself is beautiful, and as I sat through the liturgy of one of its Sunday morning services, the answer to the question of Ungit suddenly came to me.
It was in the rituals. It was in the dark, almost spooky confines of the sanctuary. There is something about old churches that whispers holy, that condemns all who come to the altar unclean. Lewis, who was baptized as a baby in that very church, would have known how it felt to be surrounded by such a legalistic, almost formulaic, type of worship.
You see, Ungit isn’t Satan, but she isn’t God, either. She represents the covenant of the Old Testament, with its laws written in blood. She is ritualism, legalism, the idea that man could earn their salvation based solely on what they had to offer.
And it would never be enough.
That’s what defines the entire book, and really, that’s what defines the romantic experience of human relationships. This is the hard truth: no matter who you love, they will never be enough – as long as you expect them to be perfect.
To love someone is to forgive them. It’s in every love story from here to a thousand years ago, but the rest of society seems to forget about that.
This Valentine’s Day, don’t buy someone a card unless you really mean it, and maybe not even then. Reach out, instead, to someone you haven’t seen, maybe even to someone you’ve wronged. Because here’s the thing: this is what separates us from the pagans.
Not the ability to love – the ability to forgive.