The Face of Ungit C. S. Lewis’ Adaptation of Apuleius in “Till We Have Faces”
By Maria Stromberg
This work was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Lost Country. You may purchase a copy of this issue from us or, if you prefer, from Amazon.
Much of the power of myth can be seen in its ability to inspire retelling. Since ancient times, poets have taken the myths handed down to them and, by recreating them, have found new possibilities and new insights. In each retelling, the myth unfolds its potential for meaning, and the greater its potential, the more powerful the myth—that is, the closer to the mysterious truth of reality. “The myths … are perhaps the truest stories ever told” (Howard 160). The greatest mystery is that which nearly every myth approaches in some way or other—what is the relation of human and divine? The story of Eros and Psyche, first told by Apuleius in the second century ad, is one of the most powerful and influential myths that have come down to us because of its universal approach to that question. The name Psyche means “soul” in Greek, and thus the myth holds the potential interpretation in which the human soul itself is beloved by the god whose name means “love.” Several versions of the myth have come since then, but none so powerful and unusual as C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Lewis takes the main theme of the myth—love both human and divine, perverse and perfect—and delves into the possibilities, left implicit by Apuleius, of understanding that love.
The greatest change made to the myth by Lewis is his movement of the focus of the story from Psyche herself to one of her jealous sisters, whom he names Orual. Instead of the two sisters who persuade Psyche to disobey her divine husband out of jealousy, Lewis gives the reader one sister who believes that everything she is doing is for Psyche’s sake, who sees the castle only for one moment and convinces herself that it is an illusion. “Lewis has removed the certainty of supernatural causality behind the myth” (Manlove 194). From the perspective of Orual, the motives of the gods are unclear. She is convinced that they are evil, trying to steal away from her the person she loves wholeheartedly. All critics agree that the story told by Lewis is still about love—but no longer the straightforward love between human and divine that Apuleius had focused on. That story is left out, hinted at, but never seen by Orual herself. She never sees the god, although she hears his voice when it is too late and Psyche has been sent on her sorrowful wandering. The main story is about Orual’s love—her love for her sister, which is deeply twisted and difficult to understand. “It is a story of true love and false love, of the selfless but also of the selfish parading as selfless” (Kilby 171). Orual destroys the happiness of her beloved sister because she cannot bear to give her up to a divine power: “The point of the book centers on the ‘case’ of Orual, human affection and its possessiveness in the face of the possession of its object of affection by a higher power” (Glover 188). This twisting of love in Orual’s soul occurs not only in her relation to Psyche, but eventually in all of her relations and in all types of love: “As Lewis observed in The Four Loves, affection, friendship, and eros may all be perverted: here, Orual distorts affection and friendship in her relationship with Psyche, as she elsewhere distorts eros with her counsellor Bardia” (Christopher 198). By giving the reader the other side, as it were, of Apuleius’ myth, Lewis can focus on a characterization of love at its most flawed: “that love which, when unsanctified, becomes tyrannical and possessive, which rots and stinks and turns into hatred” (Van Der Weele 191). There is nothing like this in Apuleius’ version of the story: or is there? If this is a true retelling of the myth, and not simply the writing of a new myth, Lewis may have found a possibility in the first telling that he could expand upon. The answer can perhaps be found in one of his less noticed, but just as startling changes to the original story: the creation of Ungit as Lewis’ version of the goddess Aphrodite, mother of Eros and goddess of love. Who is Ungit? In the non-Greek world of Glome where Lewis sets his story, Aphrodite is not a beautiful, dazzling goddess in woman’s form, but a shapeless stone, covered with the blood of sacrifices. No other character in Apuleius’ myth changes so much in character or appearance as Aphrodite transformed into Ungit. The Fox, Orual’s Greek tutor, recognizes Ungit as corresponding to Aphrodite, but it hardly seems possible that she is still the goddess of love. In Lewis’ own mythology of the story, she is not really a goddess in the same sense that Eros, known only as the god of the mountain, exists as a supernatural being. His voice is heard, Psyche sees him, and Orual herself feels his presence at the very end of the book. Ungit, however, never appears. She is shapeless and terrifying. In spite of this, the people of Glome find comfort and peace from their worship of her.
None of this seems to parallel the Greek understanding of Aphrodite. Yet there is a certain terror and mystery surrounding her: according to the Greek legend she was born from the foam of the sea and the blood of Ouranos’ castration—thus, parentless and of an origin beyond human understanding. In that sense, like Ungit, Aphrodite is faceless: she is unintelligible. As Orual realizes from the Fox’s telling of his story, Aphrodite is also terrifying in spite of her beauty when she appears in her true form to the mortal Anchises. Nor is Aphrodite necessarily good, for all her aesthetic appeal. In the story of Cupid and Psyche, as told by Apuleius, it is the incredible jealousy of Aphrodite that creates all of the problems for Psyche. Her relationship with Cupid is a little too close for comfort, even if they are mother and son. She is ready to punish Psyche with the worst of relationships in return for the loss of her worship, even if that was not Psyche’s own fault but that of the people who idolized her. The tasks Aphrodite makes her perform after discovering that Eros had fallen in love with Psyche are meant to be too hard to accomplish. It is only the intervention of Jupiter that finally forces Aphrodite to stop and accept the relationship of the two lovers. This possessiveness of love, intense jealousy masked as affection, inability to let go of someone related to you—all of these elements were taken by Lewis and made the center of the story in the character of Orual. Aphrodite represents not only sexual love, but also the dark and ugly sides of what love can become. In her actions, Aphrodite is not beautiful. Nor is she divine; she is all too human in all of her aspects. She is not divine in the sense that Lewis would have understood the word divine. She represents, not the ineffable and transcendent, but what is common to humanity itself. Mythology often makes divine what is representative of a mystery of human nature: thus Ares, god of war, embodies mindless violence; Artemis, a feminine desire to be untouched and unsullied by love. These tendencies are difficult to understand, even, or perhaps especially, for those in whom they occur. Mythology gives them a certain objectivity by making them into figures of a story, but the end of the story is not understanding the divine, but understanding the human; yet perhaps it is possible to understand the divine through the human. As the story of Eros and Psyche shows, not to mention many other myths of various times and places, there is an overwhelming belief that humans at their best, and with help, can become divine. Apuleius’ myth provides one such account, and it shows quite clearly that one thing must be overcome in the path to divinity: Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One of the most curious features of the story as Apuleius tells it is the final task that Psyche must perform: to go to the underworld and bring back the chest that contains Proserpina’s beauty, to give to Aphrodite. If Aphrodite truly is beautiful, what does she need with some other goddess’ beauty? This is never explained, yet it provides a possibility in the myth that Lewis explores to its full potential. Aphrodite is overcome and defeated by a transformation of her ugliness into beauty—a beauty not human or sexual, since it comes from the underworld, the land of spirits. It is this spiritual beauty, carried by the hands of Psyche, the soul, that redeems the ugliness of human love and makes possible the union of human soul and divine love. The pattern of the myth, seen in this light, allows Lewis to write the story Till We Have Faces, infusing into it all of his Christian belief, but without making it into an allegory of the Christian faith.
There are two versions of Aphrodite in Lewis’ retelling of the story—Ungit, the goddess to whom sacrifices are made, and Orual, the ugly sister whose possessive and selfish love must be purged. As the story goes on, Orual learns, through dreams and visions as well as conversations and her own retelling of her story, that she too is Ungit. At last, when the vision comes to its culmination, and she waits for Psyche, having understood herself at last, she is Ungit to whom Psyche brings the beauty of Proserpina. Then, in a further twist, she becomes Psyche as well—that is, the beloved of the god who loves Psyche. But this is for later. What does it mean for Orual to be Ungit? Ungit, like Aphrodite, is a figure of something universal and mysterious. Orual, on the other hand, is one particular person in whom the mystery and formlessness of Ungit grows until it overwhelms her. Yet both are not purely negative or evil in their effects on others. The worship of Ungit is treated by Lewis with a strange kind of reverence. The priest is a powerful figure, and his belief and piety are real. He is sacred, and the house of Ungit is also sacred. He understands the presence of mystery in the world, and of what is beyond reason’s grasp, and he is proved to be right—not necessarily in his particular understanding, but in his knowledge that there are things he does not know. For all of his philosophical tendencies, the Fox is less like Socrates than the priest in this respect. The Fox pretends to have answers for everything, and to discount what cannot be fitted into his rational system. Ungit, as representing what is mysterious and ineffable in human life, can, in that sense, be called divine, even if Lewis does not show that she actually exists. She is not there at the end, when the god comes for Psyche—or she is only there within Orual. At one point towards the end of the story, when the old priest is dead and the new priest of Ungit has brought in a Greek statue of Aphrodite to adorn her temple, Orual sees a woman offering sacrifice at the old stone. The woman is convulsed with grief, yet after praying to Ungit she becomes calm and at peace. The new, beautiful statue, is not for her and does not give her comfort. There is a sense in which the divine must be mysterious and beyond comprehension, and yet close to the nature of things. Ungit is described as brooding, like a loaf of bread, maternal and yet stifling like the nurse who embraced Orual too closely and possessively. This is how Orual sees her. Yet she is a stone—that is, of the earth itself, connected to nature directly. The story is that she pushed herself out of the earth, not that she fell from the sky. She is not manmade—if made at all, in the understanding of the people of Glome, she is made by the same power that made the earth, and is thus, like nature, outside of human control. The beautiful statue of Aphrodite, on the other hand, is made by human hands. It cannot comfort because it contains no mystery and no sense of connection with what is beyond the human.
Ungit is not merely a representation, like Aphrodite, of the mystery and sometimes ugliness of human love. She is also the imperfect way in which an imperfect and still barbarous people understand something of the ineffable power of the divine. They cannot help confusing the mystery of their own human passions and the mystery of a divine being. The god of the mountain, like Eros, is not faceless—but he cannot allow his face to be seen. Orual, unlike the god, is faceless by choice, because she hides herself from self-knowledge and the knowledge of others. Her use of the veil to hide her ugliness is symptomatic of this. It is an outward expression of her refusal to admit her wrongdoing and the ugliness that has invaded her love for Psyche. The more she refuses herself, the more faceless she becomes, until she becomes the formless Ungit—not as a divine being, but as the mysterious power of selfishness that feeds on everything that comes to it. These two aspects are united in Ungit, depending on the person who approaches her. It is the human and worst aspect that grows in Orual until her veil becomes her “face”—not her true face, but the symbol that allows people to recognize her. When she grows old, she realizes that by removing her veil she can go in disguise—she has no face that others would know. Yet the removal of her veil is the first step in the recovery of her true self. It is at that point that the voice of the god in the river forbids her to kill herself. Instead of destroying what little self she has left, she must prepare to recover her true face—which happens within the dream in which her father shows her that she is Ungit, and then she herself sees her sin through the reading of her own accusation. It is a mirror to her soul—a soul now stripped of the veil of self-delusion and pride. Orual realizes at last that she has become Ungit, the swollen, selfish, all-devouring spider that sacrifices what it loves—but at the same time she is also the other side of Ungit for the first time. She is the side of Ungit that is capable of divinity. Orual, as the veiled queen, had lost her true face but had also become for her people something like Ungit. She had become a just and good queen who gave security and prosperity to her nation. This was also something of which she was capable. Lewis takes care to remind us of this. But this potential for goodness in Orual was not from the heart when she acted as queen. It was the veil that she used to hide the turmoil of her soul, to forget about Psyche and her guilt towards her. In order to gain her true face, Orual needed more than the good actions of most of her life. She needed to be transformed from Ungit into Psyche.
Here Lewis, at the end of his book, departed most fully from the myth as Apuleius told it. Ungit, and Orual, are both described as motherly figures, but they are both barren. Only in the mythology of the priest is the god of the mountain a son of Ungit. In reality, at the end, he becomes the lover, not only of Psyche, but, it is implied, of Orual who has become Psyche as well. He is the one to whom all love is properly directed, and Orual, for all her once painful and twisted love of Psyche, the love that governed her life, must admit that even Psyche does not matter for her own sake, but for the god’s sake. In the old myth, Apuleius hinted at an improper relation between Aphrodite and Eros as mother and son—it is through her excessive love for Eros that Aphrodite becomes the evil figure to be defeated. For Lewis, however, there is no such thing as excessive love for the god. He is the only one, in fact, who can be loved above everything. It is Psyche who must be loved, not for her own sake, but for his. Orual has learned that there is an order in love, which she had overturned in blaming the gods and wishing to keep Psyche for herself. Unlike the pagan mythologists, Lewis has faith that all mortals are loved by the gods. To lose Psyche to the gods is only to lose her as long as Orual does not love them herself. When she becomes Psyche, the one who loves and is beloved by the god, she gains everything that she had lost—and much more. To become Psyche is to gain the face that is most truly one’s own. The meaning of the word Psyche implies this, of course, and Lewis does the most he can with the Greek allegory. The Greeks also guessed that all humans, all souls, were beloved by the gods. But to gain that face is not easy—some, like Istra, are born being Psyche. Others, like Orual, fight against it all of their lives. How does Orual gain her face at last? She does so through Psyche’s gift of Proserpina’s beauty. To know oneself is not enough—the true face is a gift that is given, and that is why it is so difficult to accept for the soul that is proud.
“The one condition of joy is obedience” (Howard 159). This is not something that Lewis has imported into the myth from his Christian consciousness, although it is certainly integral to his faith. It is something that was implicit in the myth from the very beginning. Psyche can do nothing of herself—it is Eros who must save her from her own foolishness. Her entrance into Olympus is not deserved, it is a gift of Zeus for Eros’ sake. However, in making Orual the main figure of his story, Orual who is Aphrodite as well as the jealous sister, Lewis makes clear that gods do not only love the mortals who love them. The painful journey of Psyche is actually the journey of Orual herself—she bears the pain, she does the hardest work of unraveling her own distorted life, until she is ready to receive her true face. In Lewis’ telling, Psyche does not obey her sister and betray her divine lover because she is persuaded by her; she does it knowing what will happen because it is the only way to save Orual. That is the point at which Psyche acts like a divine being. Even though Orual does not love the gods as she understands them, the gods love her and prove it through the suffering they allow her to experience. The trials of Psyche are her trials, and the result is her transformation. What was unclear or ambiguous in Apuleius’ myth is retold by Lewis to support the full meaning that was implicit. In Lewis’ retelling, we humans do not suffer because the gods hate us, but because they love us.
- Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Trans. E. J. Kenney. New York: Penguin, 1998.
- Christopher, Joe R. “Archetypal Patterns in Till We Have Faces.” The Longing for a Form: Essays on the Fiction of C. S. Lewis. Ed. Peter J. Shakel. Kent: Kent State UP, 1977. 193–212.
- Glover, Donald E. C. S. Lewis: The Art of Enchantment. Athens: Ohio UP, 1981.
- Howard, Thomas. “Till We Have Faces: The Uttermost Farthing.” The Achievement of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1980. 155–93.
- Kilby, Clyde S. “Till We Have Faces: An Interpretation.” The Longing for a Form: Essays on the Fiction of C. S. Lewis. Ed. Peter J. Shakel. Kent: Kent State UP, 1977. 171–81.
- Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, 1984.
- Manlove, C. N. C. S. Lewis: His Literary Achievement. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1987.
- Van Der Weele, Steve J. “From Mt. Olympus to Glome: C. S. Lewis’s Dislocation of Apuleius’s ‘Eros and Psyche’ in Till We Have Faces.” The Longing for a Form: Essays on the Fiction of C. S. Lewis. Ed. Peter J. Shakel. Kent: Kent State UP, 1977. 182–92.