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

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In a memorable passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, beauty is described as being an “awful thing…mysterious as well as terrible” (97). This strikingly paradoxical view of the beautiful, especially as it relates to the numinous, resonates in the writings of the Inklings. Charles Williams, for instance, points out that while caritas is often likened to “our immediate emotional indulgence,” it should be properly understood in the sense of the “otherness and terror of God.” Encountering the ultimate Other means, in effect, that “Christ exists in the soul, in joy, in terror, in a miracle of newness. Ecce, omnia facio [Behold I make all things new]” (He Came Down, 9-11). C.S. Lewis concurs that divine goodness implies “something more stern and splendid than mere kindness,” since “even the love between the sexes is, as in Dante, ‘a lord of terrible aspect’” (The Problem of Pain, 27-9). This majestic Dante-esque figure, at once frightening and attractive, appears under various guises in Descent into Hell and Till We Have Faces. In their respective novels, Williams and Lewis depict the changing faces of beauty in order to highlight the great difference between true and false visions of the good.

Through the infernal descent of his protagonist, Williams shows how the lure of deceptive beauty can become a fatal attraction. Hell awaits Lawrence Wentworth because he dares to “look, in [the] Dantean phrase, on the head of the Gorgon in Dis” (Descent, 216); that is, on the sensual yet terrifying face of the Medusa whose gaze petrifies the beholder and fills him with despair. In Inferno IX, Dante interprets the myth about “the beauty of the lady changed to ugliness, fascination turned to horror” as a moral allegory of the inability of the hardened heart to repent (Freccero, 127). To avert this fate, Virgil shields Dante’s eyes from direct contact with the female monster. Wentworth, on the other hand, refuses the aid of any such guide, and chooses, instead, to see the Medusa unveiled. Why is this the case?

Wentworth’s downward spiral begins when he registers his inveterate hatred of facts. Williams identified the temptation to heresy, or “intellectual obstinacy,” as the veritable “Medusa’s head.” Wentworth is accordingly portrayed as the quintessential heretic whose “integrity of mind ha[s] disintegrated,” and who “justifie[s] error and evil to himself” (The Figure of Beatrice 126). His flight from truth is especially evident in the professional sphere. Gripped by envy, Williams’s academically concupiscent historian distorts evidence in a vain effort to discredit the research of his colleague, Aston Moffatt, who is “a pure scholar…who would have sacrificed reputation, income, and life, if necessary, for the discovery of one fact” (Descent 38). Wentworth’s rejection of one “insignificant” fact concerning a negligible military skirmish leads to another rejection (lying about the historical accuracy of uniforms being used for a play rehearsal), and then to another; until, at last, he professes, “then and for ever, for ever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts” (81). This new historicist, who follows Nietzsche’s claim that “truths are illusions,” seals his fate (84). For, as Williams formulates it, “hell is always inaccurate” while “heaven is always exact” (The Image of the City 30, Collected Plays 298). In the end, Wentworth damns himself through the “small, steady falsifying” of his expert knowledge when, as Dorothy L. Sayers observes, “one touch of the scholar’s truth would have saved him” (Letters 277, 143).

In a parallel move, Wentworth also fails to acknowledge that human love exists. Hell for him is other people since “he had never had a friend or a lover, he had never, in any possible sense of the word, been ‘in love’” (Descent 36). The loner never entertains the possibility, as Plato does in the Symposium, that falling in love with someone can be one way to affirm a person’s beauty as an attractive good. When Williams defines romantic love plainly as “a state of facts” (cited in Ridler, xliii), he not only invokes the Platonic triad of the true, the good, and the beautiful, he also recalls how the beloved flourished in Dante’s imagination:

The image of Beatrice existed in his thought; it remained there and was deliberately renewed…the subjective recollection within him was of something objectively outside him; it was an image of an exterior fact and not of an interior desire. (The Figure, 7)

The reference here is to a key point in Virgil’s famous discourse on love in the Purgatorio:

Your apprehension draws from some real fact
An inward image, which it shows to you,
And by that image doth the soul attract:
And if the soul attracted, yearns thereto,
That yearning’s love. (XVIII.22-26)

The true lover beholds an actual person, not a phantasm generated by his perception and libido. But Dante succumbs precisely to this temptation in the next canto during his dream of the siren. Initially ugly in appearance, she becomes increasingly beautiful as Dante gazes on her (Purg.XIX.7-15). Williams interprets the siren as a false image of Beatrice (The Figure 165-6), and expands Dante’s theme in Descent into Hell. (cf. Sayers, Further Papers 141).

Like the medieval pilgrim, Wentworth strays from the true path when he pursues “false phantoms of the good” (Purg.XXX.131). These idols—imagini false—that bring “false delight” to the worshipper (Purg.XXXI.34), are not only human artefacts such as the golden calf, but can also be images of feminine beauty formed in the mind (cf. Robertson 99). These “image[s] without incarnation,” as Williams calls them, lead to “idolatry of self” (Descent 127). A particularly brilliant dramatization of this process occurs in the pivotal chapter where Wentworth “return[s] to Eden.” While inside this archetypal “garden of satisfied dreams” (Descent 126), he re-enacts the fall of Adam in symbolic terms as an abuse of beauty. John Scotus’s allegorical analysis of the biblical scene provides an illuminating gloss on Wentworth’s predicament. The medieval philosopher interpreted the earthly paradise as a figure of human nature consisting of two regions, one spiritual and the other bodily. In the first, or interior, region dwells truth, and all good as recognized by reason. When one sees a fair sight or object, Scotus maintains, it enters as a fantasy into the exterior region. If this beautiful image is not referred immediately to the intellect for judgement, then the serpent of concupiscence beguiles the senses into accepting the forbidden fruit as an appealing good (267). “All error thus begins in the exterior or aesthetic region of the garden,” D.W. Robertson, Jr. explains, “and through its delight in the phantasy of a beauty which it falsifies, it may corrupt and pervert the inner region of the garden, just as Eve successfully tempted Adam” (71). The “marriage” contracted between the spirit and the flesh, or man and woman, is thereby adulterated since, as St. Augustine adds, a “hidden and secret kind of wedlock” in the inner man takes place (On the Holy Trinity 161). Wentworth meets the same subtle snares when he runs down “the path that coiled round the edge of Eden” (Descent 89), the objective correlative to his own circular reasoning about Adela, the woman he is infatuated with. Resentful of the fact that she is dating a man named Hugh instead of him, Wentworth compensates for the snub by manufacturing a simulacrum of Adela to gratify his lust. He heeds the seductive voice that tells him “It’s good for man to be alone” (Descent 86), and celebrates his “betrothal” to an imaginary Eve (Descent 127). He accordingly expels the “actual Adela” from his “closed garden” and replaces her with an erotic “phantasm of Adela” (Descent 132, 144).1

Wentworth resists “the creation of fact…the making of things other than the self,” that is, the whole idea of “otherness” (Descent 89). Consequently, he misses the opportunity to experience the Beatrician vision, “the glory of truth that broke out of the very air itself upon the agonized Florentine in the Paradise of Eden: ‘ben sem, ben sem, Beatrice’”(Descent 89). Wentworth fails to translate the “singular” of his private dream (the “I am” of the Siren), into the “plural” of a common love story (the “we are” of Beatrice).2 For him, love is a supreme fiction, not the supreme fact.

Unfortunately, Wentworth fails to understand the repeated warning about his impending doom contained in his recurring dream of a rope. His presumption shuts out the timor servilis that fears above all the loss of eternal life, or the “filial” fear that “sees sin as sin” (Pieper, 134-5):

He felt no fear; he climbed; if he climbed, securely, and all the infinite black void did not terrify him; he would not fall. Nor did he fear the end—not fear. No monstrosity awaited him. (Descent 37)

No monstrosity awaits him except, tragically, the Gorgon’s head.

In sharp contrast, Pauline Anstruther’s trepidation eventually turns, paradoxically, into “joy” (Descent 171). She initially recoils from confronting an image of her moral double she has seen in a vision. Pauline’s consternation grows on hearing an account of the martyrdom of her ancestor, John Struther, which took place in the sixteenth century. In the ensuing discussion, Margaret, her grandmother, gently insists that “salvation…is quite often a terrible thing—a frightening good” (Descent 56). The consoling truth of this saying slowly dawns on Pauline. As the playwright Peter Stanhope explains, “the substantive, of course, governs the adjective; not the other way round…Good…contains terror, not terror good” (Descent 65). The more she perceives her flight from fact, or self-knowledge, the more her fear dissipates. Peter Stanhope lifts her dread of encountering her true “other self” and bears it for her. Pauline, for her part, reaches back in time to endure vicariously the suffering of her ancestor (Descent 169-170) in accordance with the pattern laid down in Christ’s Passion; that act of “just vengeance,” as Dante puts it (Par.VII.20), carried out in atonement for humanity’s sins.

Pauline’s own act of substituted love also bears fruit. On relieving her ancestor of his mental anguish, Pauline is again brought face to face with her glorified self. This time she is not afraid, rather she marvels at it:

She opened her eyes…there, as a thousand times in her looking-glass—there! The ruffled brown hair, the long nose, the firm compressed mouth, the tall body, the long arms, her dress, her gesture. It wore no super-natural splendour of aureole, but its rich nature burned and glowed before her, bright as if mortal flesh had indeed become what all lovers know it to be. (Descent 170-171)

The epiphanic scene corresponds to the one in which Dante beholds the transfigured body of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova (Sayers, Further Papers 196). Intended by God to be “cosa nova” (“a new thing”), a miracle rooted in the very Love of the Trinity itself (Musa 35, 62), this marvelous creature who suddenly appears to her lover is someone real. She is not “realer,” as Williams says, than the actual Beatrice, who doubtless had many serious faults, but she is just as real: “Both Beatrices are aspects of one Beatrice” (The Figure 27). It can likewise be said that both Paulines are mirror images of one Pauline. The action of grace elevates her fallen nature, making it a new creation, a union of the spirit with the “holy and glorious flesh” of the risen body (Par.XIV.43). The recurring biblical phrase (Descent 151, 173), Ecce, omnia nova facio (“Behold, I will make all things new,” Rev 21:5) unfolds a “new vision of the world” (Descent 188) for Pauline as she, like Dante, delights in the miracle of newness. This is a reflection of the transcendent Beauty that is, in St. Augustine’s phrase, “at once so ancient and so new” (Confessions, 231): “tam antiqua, tam nova, vita nova, nova creatura, a new creature, no more in any sense but new, not opposed to the old, but in union with the old, new without any trick of undermeaning, new always and now new” (Descent 205).

The heroine of Till We Have Faces seems at first constitutionally incapable of experiencing a similar transformation. In a paradigmatic childhood scene, Orual also stands before a mirror but only to see reflected there a “perfect image” of her physical ugliness (Till 69-70). The negative epiphany confirms her sense that an individual’s psychosomatic makeup is determined arbitrarily at birth: “We bring our ugliness with us into the world, with it our destiny” (Till 293). This firm conviction prompts her to lodge an even greater complaint. The gods, in her view, treat men and women as mere playthings, inflicting pain upon them unjustly and indiscriminately. To satisfy their bloodlust, moreover, they demand human sacrifice, a barbaric practice that reveals what Orual calls the unspeakable “horror of divine things” (Till 57).

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.


1 The Medusa not only petrifies Wentworth’s intellect but also the language in which he perverts the image of Adela. The character who triggers his abandonment of the “right speech” of heavenly discourse in favour of the “meaningless gabble” of Dante’s hell (Figure of Beatrice, 199; Descent, 207) is Lily Sammile. This demon of lies apparently speaks “true words” to Wentworth that convince him he should think more about himself. The gullible historian becomes, however, the dupe of her semantic incoherence:

He didn’t understand the first phrase…Much difficulty in finding what? in finding it? the it that could be found if he thought of himself more; that was what he had said, or she had said, whichever had said that the thing was to be found, as if Adela had said it, Adela in her real self, by no means the self that went with Hugh; no, but the true, the true Adela who was the difficulty all the while, that she was truly his, and wouldn’t be, but if he thought more of her truly being, and not of her being untruly away, on whatever way, for the way that went away was not the way she truly went, but if they did away with the way she went away, then Hugh could be untrue and she true, then he would know themselves, two, true and two, on the way he was going, and the peace in himself, and the scent of her in him, and the her, meant for him, in him; that was the she he knew, and he must think the more of himself. (83)

Like the inhabitants of Dante’s hell (Inf. III.18), Wentworth has lost the good of the intellect, the capacity to seek truth, and he hopelessly entangles himself in the convoluted logic of unending self-reflection. The “it” in the above passage has no referential locus antecedent in his self-enclosed world.

2 Williams translates what he calls “almost the greatest line in Dante and therefore in all poetry” (He Came Down 104) as follows: “Look well: we are, indeed we are, Beatrice” (Purg. XXX.73). He also points out how the appearance of the siren and the words of her opening song, “Io son…io son dolce Sirena—I am, I am the sweet Siren” (Purg.XIX.19), are a deliberate echo and contrast to the words of Beatrice when she first appears in Purgatorio XXX (The Figure of Beatrice 165).

3 Rudolf Otto notes that he based his new word “numinous” from the Latin numen by analogy with “ominous,” which we derive from omen. For the influence of Otto on Lewis, see Doris T. Myers, 168-174.

4 Orual’s statement refers unmistakably to the climax of Dante’s journey in Paradiso when he contemplates the Love that moves the sun and the other stars (XXXIII.145). Her final vision also alludes to Dante’s encounter with the Lord of terrifying aspect, “frightening to behold, yet apparently marvellously filled with joy” in the Vita Nuova (5). For a more detailed analysis of related themes, see the two articles on Till We Have Faces by Dominic Manganiello.

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