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.)

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13 responses »

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow, I never made that connection. That is really cool. It’s interesting the similarity between the names; I wonder if there was some root word that Lewis and Tolkien both drew from?
    I’m glad you finally read Till We Have Faces. Isn’t it splendid? I think it may be my favorite book.

  2. I remember reading “Till We Have Faces” last semester (for once did I read a book before you?!). Still not sure what I think, though I know I enjoyed it– I’m still not sure I “get” it… Lewis is way too brilliant for me sometimes…

  3. A. Setliffe says:

    Well said!
    You know, I have been exploring a concept that came to me recently, that hearkens to what you say here, which made me all the more glad to read this! Thank you for posting it!
    I have always felt that, in Till We Have Faces (one of my favorite books of all time, for all of its strangeness and painfulness), Lewis is writing about himself. He is Orual, he is Fox, he is Psyche, and all the rest… and the book holds so much power because so are we all. That book is many things, including a portrait of the human soul.
    Tolkien always seems less overt in his symbolism, and yet he and Lewis deal with many of the same themes in their different ways. I began to wonder if LotR held in its pages the “mirror of the human soul” that appears in Till We Have Faces. Are there aspects of Tolkien, and all humans, in his characters as well? The more I look, the more I think that there are. Whether Tolkien would have admitted to this or not, I do not know (as you may know, he denied the existence of allegory in his works, but embraced the concept of “applicability”), but I think his characters ring true because they are echoes of their author’s humanity. The thought is intriguing that we are Ungit, Ungoliant, Psyche and Samwise, Bardia, Fox, Aragorn, Gollum, and Gandalf. I cannot think of a single one that does not echo something of their authors and ourselves.

    In short (I obviously have a hard time being short), both LotR and TWHF seem, to me, explorations of humanity as well as powerful and entertaining stories.

    Thank you, again, for posting this!

    • I think you’re exactly right about Tolkien. Like you mentioned, he always shied away from categorizing his books as allegories (and I would agree that they aren’t, overtly), but on a subtle level, they affect us the same way allegories do. His characters are almost idealized pictures of traits and characteristics (Sauron=evil, Beregond=loyalty, Aragorn=nobility, Frodo=sacrifice, etc.) that register as truth to us.

  4. propjets says:

    I’m somewhat disturbed now, because after a blog post in which you discuss gluttonous lust and the evil seducer, there’s an ad featuring a thumbnail of a video in which a young man is apparently about to kiss a young lady. O.o

  5. A. Setliffe says:

    And Samwise=adorableness!
    I love the fact that, even with their strong internal themes, almost all of Tolkien’s characters are convincingly human rather than being two-dimensional. That takes talent!

    A note on the following comments. I have adblocker and I see no ads either.

    • David says:

      I too have Adblocker, so have never noticed if there are ads on WordPress. I assumed there weren’t and that it is just classier than other blog sites, but maybe Adblocker is just that good.

      And “amen” about Tolkien’s characters!

  6. Sarah says:

    Reading it more than once is a good idea; I understand it so much more than I did the first time. (Same thing goes for Charles Williams AND Flannery O’Connor, Eric!)

  7. A. Setliffe says:

    Aye, there are a lot of books that take multiple readings for me. I don’t know if you are familiar with George MacDonald or not, but every time I read one of his it is like reading a new book.

  8. David says:

    Very interesting connection there. I agree with you and with Anne’s comment above: that Ungit more than anything probably symbolizes man’s sin nature that is found in all of us, and that something of the authors can be found in all of their characters.

    I don’t know if Lewis intended an explicit connection between his Ungit and Tolkien’s Ungoliant, but he did mention Numinor before, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

    And I look forward to hearing your thoughts on An Experiment in Criticism.

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