A Terrible Beauty: True and False Visions of the Good in Descent into Hell and Till We Have Faces

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The strategy of putting the gods in the dock backfires, however. In a visionary sequence, an adult Orual stands once again before a mirror in an infernal setting and is shocked to discover that she is the goddess she abhors the most: “The vision…[w]ithout question…was true. It was I who was Ungit. That ruinous face was mine” (Till 287). The hideous specular image exposes not only her facial ugliness but also the base motives of her actions. Ironically, Orual treated all her loved ones—including her beloved sister Psyche—with the same selfishness and cruelty she previously attributed to the gods: “To say that I was Ungit meant that I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged” (Till 292). Following this frank admission, the roles in the court proceeding are reversed: the accuser is really the accused. Spellbound by the picture of her moral corruption, Orual becomes a Medusa figure turning her own heart to stone.

Orual’s earlier decision to don a veil paved the way for this dramatic recognition scene. The veiled face symbolized an acute identity crisis, and fuelled much speculation among the citizens of Glome. Some said it was the face of a siren or an animal too terrible to be looked at directly, while others maintained it hid a beauty so dazzling that, if seen, would madden all the men of the world. And still others spread the rumour that their Queen had no face at all. All these guesses contained a grain of truth since they contributed unwittingly to sketching a portrait of a monarch who had turned into “something very mysterious and awful,” a double of Ungit (Till 237-8).

Psyche’s demeanour, on the other hand, reveals a benign aspect of the “awful” goddess. When she walks through the streets of Glome for the first time, the people are smitten with her stunning appearance: “Her [Psyche’s] beauty…worked on them as a terror might work” (Till 40). There is something mysterious yet fascinating about Psyche’s “terrible beauty” that reminds people of Ungit. Orual herself feels this paradoxical sensation in a later scene when she spots her sister across a river in the region of the Grey Mountain: “A quivering shock of feeling that has no name (but nearest terror) stabbed through me from head to foot” (Till 110). Orual’s dark view of the gods and their activity prevents her from seeing “the place where all…beauty came from” (Till 83). She therefore describes the happy valley where Psyche resides with the so-called Shadowbrute as “a terrible…indeed a dreadful place” (Till 126, 129). But “the contemplation of the horrid,” to quote T.S. Eliot, “is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty” (169).

The sense of the ominous, in fact, masks a hidden longing to experience the numinous.3 Although she sets out to reclaim Psyche from the gods, Orual secretly pines to see the face of the one who gives her sister “unspeakable joy” (Till 132): “We must face it child…What sort of god would he be who dares not show his face? … Nothing that’s beautiful hides its face. Nothing that’s honest hides its name…In your heart you must see the truth” (Till 168). The barrage of questions aimed at Psyche serves only to highlight Orual’s disingenuousness. Intending “at any cost to write what is wholly true” in her memoir, Orual nevertheless denies seeing the “labyrinthine beauty” of the god’s palace (Till 126, 141). The moment of truth arrives, however, when Orual persuades Psyche to light a lamp so she could steal a fleeting glimpse of the sleeping god: “A monster—the shadowbrute that I and all Glome had imagined—would have subdued me less than the beauty this face wore” (Till 181). This indelible image of the divine presence remains with Orual, and foreshadows the final epiphany of the face that will fill her with a “new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness” (Till 318).

The first appearance of the god, then, forces Orual to recognize her willful blindness. Although proud to claim “I was my own and Psyche was mine” (Till 303), Orual gradually renounces her possessiveness and retracts her declaration of independence: “Oh Psyche, never again will I call you mine, but all there is of me shall be yours…I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver” (Till 316-17). “True love,” in the words of St. Ambrose, “prefers others to self, and seeks not its own, wherein lies the pre-eminence of justice” (22). A contrite heart, moreover, allows Orual to dream of becoming a new creature, born from above: “If I practised true philosophy,.. I should change my ugly soul into a fair one. And this, the gods helping me, I would do” (Till 272-3). The love of beauty (philocalia) and the love of wisdom (philosophia), as St Augustine says (Against the Academics 71), bear a family resemblance, and become, in fact, two sisters.

If seeing the ruinous face of Ungit warned Orual of her spiritual death, then remembering Psyche’s “brightface” in the mountain valley marks the beginning of her new life (Till 161). This happy memory serves to bring about their poignant reconciliation. When the god exiles Psyche and assigns various tasks to her for breaking his command not to bring light into their bedchamber, Orual bears the burdens (Till 312). In an act of reciprocating love, Psyche fetches a casket of beauty from the Deadlands for Orual. The enigmatic prophecy of the god, “You also shall be Psyche” (Till 182), is accordingly fulfilled in the palace gardens as the two sisters stand beside each other at the edge of a pool. Looking down, Orual notices two reflections in the water: “Yes, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same” (Till 319). Here Lewis invokes a famous myth to make a telling point. Narcissus revealed “the terror behind the mirror” when he died in the attempt to possess the image of himself he beheld in a pond (Sugerman 24). Conversely, Psyche functions as a true mirror of the good by reflecting divine beauty. She inspires Orual to renounce her narcissistic ego in favour of a beautiful soul or “psyche” reshaped by grace.

Consequently, a new understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful emerges. As Simone Weil puts it, “we love the beauty of the world, because we sense behind it the presence of something akin to that wisdom we should like to possess to slake our thirst for good” (10). Orual’s profound interior transformation sets the stage for her much-anticipated final encounter with the lord of terrible aspect: “And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is was coming” (Till 318-19). Orual experiences the fear that is both the beginning of wisdom and the source of blessedness (cf. Ps 34:11, Ps 112:1) as she contemplates, like Dante, the Love for whose sake the “earth and stars and sun…existed” (Till 318).4

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.