Book Meme: ‘Psichore’s Day Twenty-Five

The Book Meme Challenge: A character who you can relate to the most

Many a character throughout the realm of Fiction calls up sympathy simply by virtue of the situation he is in and how the author has constructed his personality, his actions, and his reactions.  However, such sympathy is not exactly congruent with relating to the character, as the phrase suggests some similarity between the character and the reader.  More than feelings, it connotes resemblance.
Therefore I write this not without trepidation, for relating to a character need not reflect well on the reader.  As Hermione Granger represents much of what I would wish to be, Orual reflects a good deal of what I am, such that even when it is clear she chooses, acts, and thinks wrongly, I understand why she does so.  More than once, Orual looks in the mirror of judgment and there I find my own face.
At the outset of Till We Have Faces, that face does not seem grim at all.  Glome does, and the house of Ungit, and perhaps the rooms where Orual’s father the King blusters about.  Orual herself, especially when she is with the Fox and Psyche, seems to be all that is sane and well; perhaps at that point she is.  But as time goes by, more and more of her soul’s deformities come to light:

Wrath
Though the words You look just like our father, and from her, had hurt me with a wound that sometimes aches still, I let go my anger and yielded.

“I thought we parted that night to talk it over again in the morning.”
“We parted to let you sleep,” said I. The words came fiercely, without my will and in my father’s own voice. Then I was ashamed.

I understood in that moment all my father’s rages. I put terrible constraint on myself … I suppose he never dreamed what he had done to me with those words The day’s work is over.

Envy (twinned with self-pity)
And so she would be far above me in everything: in courage as well as in beauty and in those eyes which the gods favoured with sight of things invisible, and even in strength…

“She used to say, ‘First of all Orual loved me much; then the Fox came and she loved me little; then the baby came and she loved me not at all.’ So she was lonely. I was sorry for her…”
… I am sure still that Redival was false and a fool. …But one thing was certain: I had never thought at all how it might be with her when I turned first to the Fox and then to Psyche. For it had been somehow settled in my mind from the very beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, hadn’t she?

We bring our ugliness, in both kinds, with us into the world, with it our destiny. How bitter this was, every ill-favoured woman will know. We have all had our dream of some other land, some other world, some other way of giving the prizes which would bring us in as the conquerors; leave the smooth, rounded limbs, and the little pink and white faces, and the hair like burnished gold, far behind; their day ended, and ours come.

Folly
My soul rose up against calling Gram, who was very irksome to me. I felt (though I saw it to be folly even at the time) that if Bardia had come with me instead, all might have been different and better. And away my thoughts wandered to imagine all he would be doing and saying now if he had, till suddenly I remembered what business had brought me there. I was ashamed that I had thought, even for a moment, of anything else.

I might die, thus wounded and fasting, or at least get such a chill as would bring my death soon after. And out of that seed there grew up, in one moment, a huge, foolish flower of fancies. For at once (leaping over all question of how it should come about) I saw myself laid on the pyre, and Psyche — she knew now, she loved me again now — beating her breast and weeping and repenting all her cruelties. The Fox and Bardia were there too; Bardia wept fast.  Everyone loved me once I was dead. But I am ashamed to write all these follies.

It embittered me that the Fox should even desire to leave me. He had been the central pillar of my whole life, something (I thought) as sure and established, and indeed as little thanked, as sunrise and the mere earth. In my folly I had thought I was to him as he was to me. “Fool!” said I to myself. “Have you not yet learned that you are that to no one? What are you to Bardia? as much perhaps as the old King was. His heart lies at home with his wife and her brats. If you mattered to him he’d never have let you fight. What are you to the Fox? His heart was always in the Greeklands. You were, maybe, the solace of his captivity. They say a prisoner will tame a rat. He comes to love the rat — after a fashion. But throw the door open, strike off his fetters, and how much’ll he care for the rat then?” And yet, how could he leave us, after so much love? I saw him again with Psyche on his knees; “Prettier than Aphrodite,” he had said. “Yes, but that was Psyche,” said my heart. “If she were still with us, he would stay. It was Psyche he loved. Never me.” I knew while I said it that it was false, yet I would not, or could not, put it out of my head.

Self-centeredness and unquenchable greed
She spoke so steadily and thoughtfully, as if we had been disputing with the Fox, up behind the pear trees, with hours and days still before us. The parting between her and me seemed to cost her so little.

…The nearest thing we have to a defense against [the gods] (but there is no real defense) is to be very wide awake and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one. And now, finding me heart-shattered for Psyche’s sake, they made it the common burden of all my fantasies that Psyche was my greatest enemy. All my sense of intolerable wrong was directed against her.  It was she who hated me; it was on her that I wanted to be revenged.  .. And soon I was in my right mind again and knew how I loved her and that she had never willingly done me any wrong, though it hurt me somewhat that she should have found time, at our last meeting of all, talking so little of me, to talk so much about the god of the Mountain, and the King, and the Fox, and Redival, and even Bardia.

A thought pierced up through the crust of my mind like a crocus coming up in the early year. Was she not worthy of the gods? Ought they not to have her? But instantly great, choking, blinding waves of sorrow swept it away and, “Oh!” I cried. “It’s not right. It’s not right. Oh, Psyche, come back! …”

I found some verses in Greek which seemed to be a hymn to the god of the Mountain. These I burned. I did not choose that any of that part of her should remain. …. I wished all to be so ordered that if she could come back she would find all as it had been when she was still happy, and still mine. Then I locked the door and put a seal on it. And, as well as I could, I locked a door in my mind.

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 . . .   I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her. Oh, you’ll say you took her away into bliss and joy such as I could never have given her, and I ought to have been glad of it for her sake.  Why? What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes.

“Tell you? And so take away from him his work, which was his life (for what’s any woman to a man and a soldier in the end?) and all his glory and his great deeds? Make a child and a dotard of him? Keep him to myself at that cost? Make him so mine that he was no longer his?”
“And yet — he would have been yours.”
“But I would be his. I was his wife, not his doxy. He was my husband, not my house-dog. He was to live the life he thought best and fittest for a great man — not that which would most pleasure me…”
…”And you could — and you can — bear that?”
“You ask that? Oh, Queen Orual, I begin to think you know nothing of love. Or no; I’ll not say that.  Yours is Queen’s love, not commoners’. Perhaps you who spring from the gods love like the gods. Like the Shadowbrute. They say the loving and the devouring are all one, don’t they?”

“Faugh! You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s — both your sisters’.”

This vision, anyway, allowed no denial. Without 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 center, gorged with men’s stolen lives.

Love-like Hatred
“Daughter, daughter….There’s one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride.”

And now those divine Surgeons had me tied down and were at work. My anger protected me only for a short time; anger wearies itself out and truth comes in. For it was all true — truer than Ansit could know.  I had rejoiced when there was a press of work, had heaped up needless work to keep him late at the palace, plied him with questions for the mere pleasure of hearing his voice. Anything to put off the moment when he would go and leave me to my emptiness. And I had hated him for going.   …Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love. One thing’s certain; in my mad midnight fantasies (Ansit dead, or, better still, proved whore, witch, or traitress) when he was at last to be seeking my love, I always had him begin by imploring my forgiveness. Sometimes he had hard work to get it.

If I have once again quoted at too great a length, it is only because there is so much of Orual wherein I see myself.  I know what it is to be suddenly full of fury, especially with those in my family who I love best.  I have often (this, too, is shameful to admit) rejoiced that I had only brothers, because then no sister would outshine me in looks, temperament, strength, or grace.  I know the feeling of seeking out some place where one’s countenance did not win the day, and of pitying myself when I did not find it.  Each of the cited follies could have come out of my own head at one point or another.  I have reckoned up my love for others and supposed theirs for me to be so much less.  I have looked on those who I loved best, who loved me best, and regarded them as enemies who intended to hurt me.  I have seized upon how much they talk of themselves, or others, never minding how often I do the same.  And as for happiness – the old line of loving someone enough to let go, or to desire his (or her) happiness more than one’s own – have I ever indeed loved anyone like that in my life?

Therefore I am afraid: afraid that I will be selfish forever, using the love of others as a weapon or instrument of torture, until all that was once love in me goes sour and I myself am a thing bloated and loathsome, inside and out.  But even now, like Orual, I wallow in that fear and snatch back that sorrow for the odd sort of pleasure it gives, weltering in my pitiful state rather than looking to change it.  For how can it?  Psyche reported that when she tried cheering herself with “all that old dream of [her] gold and amber palace on the mountain,” she “couldn’t believe in it at all”; “all [her] old longings were clean gone.”  But what about those of us left in the valley, all our old longings intact?  I would set out boldly each morning to be just and calm and wise in all my thoughts and acts; but before they had finished dressing me I would find that I was back (and knew not how long I had been back) in some old rage, resentment, gnawing fantasy, or sullen bitterness. I could not hold out half an hour. And a horrible memory crept into my mind of those days when I had tried to mend the ugliness of my body with new devices in the way I did my hair or the colours I wore. I’d a cold fear that I was at the same work again. I could mend my soul no more than my face.

In the end, Orual admits “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you.  I was a craven.”  All her ugliness, body and soul, is laid bare; there is the veil stripped from her face.  And then Psyche lifts her up to give her beauty.  I can only hope that relating to Orual extends this far; for though I know who will save me from this body of death, the mirror shows that I am a long way from beautiful.

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?

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10 thoughts on “Book Meme: ‘Psichore’s Day Twenty-Five

  1. Your candidness and thoroughness puts my paltry post to shame. Additionally, you have reminded me of the striking emotional depth of Till We Have Faces. It’s interesting to hear a female viewpoint on Orual, who was written so intensely and empathically by Lewis. Thank you.

    • Thank you for reading, David. I’m glad you find it so; I’d worried that on one hand, it was far too much detail – and on the other, that it was but a catalogue of sins every man is subject to. But it seems to me that Orual writes out my own thoughts sometimes…how good of Lewis to do the hard work of setting all those thoughts out, so one may point at them and say “Yes, exactly that. *That* is what plagues me.”

      • David pointed me here, and I am so glad he did. I do, indeed, think that Orual is all of us, if we have the honesty to admit it. I think Lewis looked deep into himself in writing her, else she would not be so true a Human. You hit upon passages that cut like knives, and I applaud your courage in setting this down. It is encouraging to be reminded, from time to time, that I am not alone.
        I…find it telling that, despite her corruption, I am able to love Orual without loving the corruption I share with her, and I can see why she is loved. The Hope Lewis wove into the book is that he shows the antidote, not just the poison.

    • I know the feeling…I was discussing the book with a friend not a week ago and found that all the internal action (that is, Orual’s thoughts and feelings rather than her actions), indeed, the entire second part, had gone clean out my head. But perhaps that has its upsides; then we can keep discovering things in it for years and years…meanwhile I am glad to have been at all illuminating.

  2. Wow. You have delved deeply. I think Orual is meant to be all of us: I remember empathizing and indentifying with her strongly. But that means I need to go reread that book.

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