The book having been recommended to me during that length of time between ordering a double shot espresso and downing the caffeine boost, I decided to read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.
When I asked my mother if she knew where our elusive copy was, she gave a me a strange look and said, “I’ve read that book.”
“Yeah? What did you think?”
“It was. . .odd.” That pause, the lifted eyebrow, the slight shake of the head, made me expect something along the lines of The Great Divorce trapped in an unhappy marriage with Descent into Hell.
But I had just read Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (I mean to blog about it soon, but in the meantime, check out this blog), and decided to try to read all books without preconceived notions, taking each book on its own merit.
So I did. And it was awesome. And it made me think.
(And here is where I would usually cram a two sentence summary for those of you who haven’t read Till We Have Faces, but I won’t now. Know why? ‘Cuz this post has a spoiler, so I figure that anyone who would need a summary might want to just check out now, go read the book, and then come back later. Read it? Good.)
I noticed the similarity between Ungit, and Ungoliant (you know, the giant evil spider in Middle-Earth, mother of the Shelob?). The similarity of the names, of course, I noticed that first, but it’s deeper.
“But she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness. . .and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. there she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.”*
And: “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.”**
The two excerpts could be about the same creature, the same skulking, swallowing mass of darkness and death.
There’s something creepy and uneasy about the thought of a monstrous spider spinning webs to catch “men’s stolen lives.” And yet the darkness isn’t from without. As Orual realizes when she confronts the mirror, we are Ungit Ungoliant.
I wonder what Tolkien would make of such a proposition posed of his own arachnid creation. The parallels aren’t perfect, of course, but in Ungoliant a great good was corrupted and lost and ruined. What had once been a creature of light and beauty listened to the seducer, succumbed to his promises of empty nothings, and became loathsome darkness.
And yet that is the result of selfishness, of self-centered living. A life bereft, like those of Ungit/Orual and Ungoliant.
But the opposite? The life of Psyche, of unfallen Maiar? That is life to the fullest.
(*Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Ballantine Books, 1977. 80-81.)
(**Lewis, C.S. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Harcourt Incorporated, 1956, 276.)