The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Human Sacrifice in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

Orual can’t give Psyche up.

Not willingly. Orual’s not willing to sacrifice her sister to the gods, and that makes Psyche (in her own eyes as well as our own) a hero. Human sacrifice is wrong. It’s evil. Orual, as a Greek-educated philosopher, knows this well. To kill a human being, to give them over to the gods, is not an act of piety but a moral failure. Especially because these sacrifices are performed with singular purpose.

Orual grew up with the blood sacrifices to the faceless stone goddess of Ungit, and found them frightening. She writes of the Priest, “I think that what frightened me (in those early days) was the holiness of the smell that hung about him—a temple-smell of blood (mostly pigeons’ blood, but he had sacrificed men too) and burnt fat and singed hair and wine and stale incense. It is the Ungit smell.” The smell of blood, the Ungit smell, is called “holy” many times in Orual’s account.

When the Queen is pregnant, the king “made great sacrifices to Ungit every month.” What he wants in return is a son and for his wife to be healthy, neither of which he gets. When Orual comes into the room after the birth, there’s evidence that the priest was doing more sacrifices during the birth, for there was, “a smell of slaughtering, and blood on the floor, and the Priest was cleaning his holy knife.” So she discovers early that the sacrifices are not always efficacious.

On the other hand, it’s here that Orual receives her great love: her little sister Psyche is born, and Orual takes her on completely, becoming not only sister but also mother and friend (and becomes intensely jealous of any other who takes space in Psyche’s heart, most especially her lover and husband, Cupid).

But then things begin to go wrong in Glome. Famine. Pestilence. Drought. Looming war, the arrival of lions, the king’s inability to sire sons. It’s a sure sign of the displeasure of the gods, which means that there must be a sacrifice. But “[b]ulls and rams and goats will not win Ungit’s favour while the land is impure.” There is sin in the camp. Someone has offended Ungit, so Ungit requires blood of a different sort. “You mean she wants Man?” the king asks. And the priest says, yes, “Or Woman.”

It has always been this way in the past. Perhaps a man had committed some secret evil and so the armies of Glome lost in battle. A young woman cursed Ungit’s son, and so the floods came. And this time the Accursed is our own Psyche, a beautiful young woman who has offended the gods (or so they think) by taking on the aspects of the goddess herself. Thus, in order to end the famines and pestilence and clear the land of lions they have to kill Psyche and give her completely to the god of the Mountain.

The Fox and Orual are horrified and do everything they can to dissuade the king and the priest from this course of action. They point out the inconsistencies, the affront to morality and philosophy; they appeal to reason and to the king’s own love of his family who are, after all, said to have divine blood themselves. But all in vain. The child must die for the greater good. Not a “common sacrifice” but the “Great Offering.”

Is Psyche the perfect victim or the wickedest person in the world? Is she the best person in the land or the one who has brought their misfortune? In Fox’s Stoic philosophy she must be one or the other, but the priest of Ungit says it is only common that she would be both. “Greek wisdom,” he says, is “very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both.”

Greek philosophy and morality are all fine and good. But failing to sacrifice Psyche will bring consequences. So Ungit “takes the house” and there is incense and preparation for sacrifice: “the reek of holiness was everywhere.”

And it is tragic. So tragic! Sweet Psyche, dear Psyche, beloved of the people, must die. But it is for the good of the people. It is for the good of the nation. The blood must be spilt and the gods satisfied… for there is a certain way of life that we require, and so there must be a sacrifice.

There’s an interesting thing that happens as the sacrifice procession begins. Orual is fighting and has been fighting against this seemingly inevitable event. But Psyche seems strangely disconnected. Orual says, “And from now till the end I felt (and this horribly) that I was losing her already, that the sacrifice tomorrow would only finish something that had already begun. She was (how long had she been, and I not to know?) out of my reach; in some place of her own.”

For Orual—and this is echoed at different moments throughout the novel—the sacrifice isn’t primarily terrible because Psyche will die, but because Orual will lose her. From Orual’s point of view, she is the one who is facing the greatest loss. Psyche tells us later, “I couldn’t feel it was I who was being sacrificed.” No doubt this is because the priest’s party gave her something to make her numb and pliable, but Lewis is telling us something here, too: from Orual’s perspective it is she and not Psyche who faces the greatest loss.

Lewis likely agrees with Orual in this moment, because Psyche does not die. In fact, she doesn’t even suffer…until her sister finds her and requires it of her. Psyche could have been happy, could have been whole, could even have been (to some degree) available to her sister if Orual hadn’t pushed her to break the god’s instructions. It is Orual who, in the end, sacrifices her sister because Psyche is not what she wants her to be.

After Orual finds her sister alive, they also discover that the lions have returned to Glome. But the king is happy about it rather than distressed. Should they tell him that Psyche lives? Orual thinks (jokingly, I hope!) that maybe dad will sacrifice Redival this time. The Fox wisely argues that, “If anyone in Glome knew that she had not died, they would seek her out and sacrifice her again.”

But then Psyche is truly gone, and Orual is distracted with her kingdom. She needs the Fox’s wise counsel, and Bardia’s strong arm to lead the military, and her father to die so she can be queen, and she gets all those things.

As Orual takes the throne, the relationship of the people in Glome to Ungit begins to change. The old priest dies and the new one is influenced by the Fox. The old stone Ungit becomes a secondary image of the goddess, and they order a statue in the Greek style to represent her: beautiful and cold, a woman, not a rock demanding blood. Sacrifices become less important (in fact, we never see Orual give a blood sacrifice to Ungit in the whole novel, not even at moments when you might think it would be normal, like when she’s about to go into battle).

Orual has won. Her philosophy, her morality has come out on top. The people of Glome have become civilized, have become Greek, have become philosophers. Sure, the occasional old lady still comes and offers pigeon blood upon the stone, but it’s just remnants of the Old Ways. It is the gods who are evil, the gods who have caused harm to all. In fact, when Orual comes upon a strange chapel in the woods, “I thought it must belong to one of those small, peaceful gods who are content with flowers and fruit for sacrifice.” (It is actually Psyche’s temple.) The world has changed.

But of course, the great twist in Till We Have Faces is that Orual’s fury at the gods and her entire series of accusations turn out to have little to do with the gods and a great deal to do with coming to know herself. For the gods did not allow Psyche to die after all…in fact, they have elevated her to a god in her own right.

When Orual confronts the gods and begins to read her story aloud it’s weak and strange and repetitive. And the Fox (who had died before this moment) comes to her in the presence of the gods and says he made many mistakes in life—including teaching Orual his philosophy in the absence of other things. For at least the Priest knew “that there must be sacrifices. They will have sacrifice; will have man. Yes, and the very heart, centre, ground, roots of a man; dark and strong and costly as blood.”

Not blood itself but something as costly: the whole person, flesh and bone and blood and spirit, all of it laid on the altar. The gods require all. And we’ll spend more time on this in the future, but Orual comes to realize that she is not just Orual. She is Psyche. She is Ungit.

Bardia once said, “And as for sacrifices, I’ve always done all that can be expected of a man on my pay.” He saw sacrifices as duty, that there is a portion of a man’s wealth that is reasonable to ask.

But Orual wanted more than that. She wanted not just Bardia’s service as commander of the army, but his whole life. She jealously desired the time he spent with his wife and children. She found excuses to keep him late, to keep him near.

She released the Fox from slavery but never intended him to leave her. She wanted him to remain in Glome, remain with her, and be her guide and teacher and surrogate father. Nothing less than the whole of his life was enough, even though he had children and friends back in Greece, even though he had only come to her through war and slavery. She wanted him, and any sacrifice (from him) would be accepted without reservation…without even conscious awareness that this is what she was taking.

The same was true of Psyche. If Orual could not have her (and all of her), then Orual must destroy what she has with others. She pushes Psyche to betray the god, harangues and manipulates and pleads with her until Psyche risks everything, loses everything to try to please Orual.

In time, Orual comes to recognize this. “I am Ungit.” Yes, it came to her in a dream or maybe a vision, but “[w]ithout question it was true. It was I who was Ungit. That ruinous face was mine. I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring, womblike, yet barren, thing. Glome was a web; I the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men’s stolen lives.”

Her soldiers had died for her. Bardia. The Fox. Her sister. Even her father’s death, nearly unnoticed, had brought her nothing but joy and profit. She hanged Batta to end the gossip and trouble in the court and even when she freed slaves, or changed the way things were done in the mine it was always to increase her own wealth, to make the country better off. Freed slaves tended to be generous with time by the fire and kind words.

No, Orual had become Ungit—or at least the Ungit of her own childhood, the feared goddess who required the blood of Men and Women—the goddess thirsty for human sacrifice. In fact, she had always been an Ungit, she had just never realized it. She had hidden it behind her philosophy and wise words and high-minded superiority.

The word “apocalypse” in Greek means “to uncover.” It’s a revealing, a revelation. That’s literally what happens to Orual. Her veil is pulled away. She sees herself. The civilized woman, the queen, has been demanding human sacrifice all along.

This is the power of Till We Have Faces for me, this idea that we may be so deceived by our own self-image that we fail to see our true selves. We would never participate in human sacrifice, we say, because we are a society of people who are evolved, who are civil, who are intelligent and believe in science.

But we do.

We accept human sacrifices all the time, if what we get in return is important enough.

Sometimes it might be like Orual with Bardia, something personal, keeping someone chained to us in duty and sucking as much of their lives into ourselves as we can. Or her relationship to the Fox, where she gives him freedom of a kind, but uses her own needs and emotions to keep him from his deeper desires. Or as it is with Psyche, where we claim deep love and yet jealously sabotage any relationship that might be closer than ours.

But might we still do it literally as well?

We still send 18-year-olds to war, after all, don’t we? And yes it’s for the greater good and to protect our way of life and for freedom or to protect our oil or democracy or, well, you know, because there is pestilence and famine and we have seen lions in the mountains at the edge of the nation. And does every 18-year-old come home? We know they don’t.

As a society we choose certain deaths we’ll allow. We choose what freedoms are worth it. What rights we desire even if it means another must die. And we no longer crowd around the temple altar. There isn’t one sacred stone on which the blood must pour. The pavement in a parking lot will do, or the floor of a grocery store, or the carpet of a classroom.

“Human sacrifice is wrong,” we say. “It’s evil.”

But when the veil is torn away we see the blood. And it is tragic—so tragic!—that they had to die. But it is for the good of the people, we’re told. It is for the good of the nation. The blood must be spilt…for there is a certain way of life that we require, and so there must be a sacrifice. There are rights to be protected, and the cost to save those lives, to prevent the bloodshed, is just too dear.

And over and over we see our faces in the mirror and we walk away and forget what we look like. We fix the veil over our eyes and nothing changes. The apocalypse becomes a memory, a tragic moment to be revisited once a year, then every five, then every ten.

So it will go. A cycle of holy tragedy, repeated on some temple calendar until we manage to see ourselves at last, we manage to keep the veil off and find the strength to look in the mirror and say “No more.”

Only then will we cease to be the featureless stone of Ungit.

Only then will we find an ease to our suffering.

We needn’t fear the Apocalypse, the unveiling, the revelation. We should fear, rather, its end. The moment when we forget ourselves and return to the featureless life from before.

It is only when we are revealed that we become whole. Only then that we will find a new and different kind of sacrifice: like how Orual took on the suffering of Psyche to allow her to become something more, something better. Only then will we meet the gods and speak to them as one speaks to a friend: face to face.

But of course that cannot happen until we see ourselves in truth at last…it cannot happen till we have faces.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.


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