[C. S. Lewis’ last novel, Till We Have Faces, written in 1956, was not particularly well received by the public. But it was his personal favourite, and in the half century since it was written it has gained a solid base of enthusiastic fans. The protagonist of the story is Orual, the unhappy ruler of Glome, a semi-barbaric city state north of Greece. Life has treated Orual very badly and she’s convinced that the gods wish her ill. Her burning sense of injustice inspires her to write a book against them. She feels she has a strong case, and from a purely human point of view she’s right. She lost her mother as a child; her father, the king, was physically and emotionally abusive; she’s ugly and ashamed of her ugliness; Psyche, the beautiful half-sister whom she loved, was sacrificed to Ungit, the barbaric god worshipped in Glome; she loves Bardia, her loyal captain of the Palace Guard, but he’s devoted to his wife Ansit, and even if Orual’s conscience had allowed her to try to steal him, her ugliness—she wears a veil to conceal it and her subjects have never seen her face—would have precluded any thought of romantic love. Despite the respect her enlightened and benevolent rule has earned her, Orual is a lonely old woman.
In the excerpt below, Orual visits Ansit to express her condolences when Bardia falls sick and dies. In her attempt to have him always near her, Orual little realizes that it is she who has inadvertently killed him through overwork. In rapid succession Lewis depicts the anger, hatred, pity, jealousy, and the desire to hurt and be revenged to which this conflict of personal perspective and individual need has given rise. He also shows how the strange and implausible statement (to which this webpage is linked) can be true: ‘A love can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.’]
One thing that shows how wholly the gods kept me to my two labours, the day’s and the night’s, is that all this time I hardly gave Bardia a thought, save to grumble at his absence because it meant that I was more hindered in my writing. While the rage of it lasted nothing seemed to matter a straw except finishing my book. Of Bardia I only said (once and again), “Does he mean to slug abed for the rest of his life?” or, “It’s that wife of his.”
Then there came a day when that last line of the book (they have no answer) was still wet, and I found myself listening to Arnom and understanding, as if for the first time, what his looks and voice meant. “Do you mean,” I cried, “that the Lord Bardia is in danger?”
“He’s very weak, Queen,” said the priest. “I wish the Fox were with us. We are bunglers, we of Glome. It seems to me that Bardia has no strength or spirit to fight the sickness.”
“Good gods,” said I, “why did you not make me understand this before? Ho! Slave! My horse. I will go and see him.”
Arnom was an old and trusted counsellor now. He laid his hand on my arm. “Queen,” he said gently and very gravely, “it would make him the less likely to recover if you now went to him.”
“Do I carry such an infection about me?” said I. “Is there death in my aspect, even through a veil?”
“Bardia is your most loyal and most loving subject,” said Arnom. “To see you would call up all his powers—perhaps crack them. He’d rouse himself to his duty and courtesy. A hundred affairs of state on which he meant to speak to you would crowd into his mind. He’d rack his brains to remember things he has forgotten for these last nine days. It might kill him. Leave him to drowse and dream. It’s his best chance now.”
It was as bitter a truth as I’d ever tasted, but I drank it. Would I not have crouched silent in my own dungeons as long as Arnom bade me if it would add one featherweight to Bardia’s chance of life? Three days I bore it (I, the old fool, with hanging dugs and shrivelled flanks). On the fourth I said, “I can bear it no longer.” On the fifth Arnom came to me, himself weeping, and I knew his tidings without words. And this is a strange folly, that what seemed to me worst of all was that Bardia had died without ever hearing what it would have shamed him to hear. It seemed to me that all would be bearable if, once only, I could have gone to him and whispered in his ear, “Bardia, I loved you.”
When they laid him on the pyre I could only stand by to honour him. Because I was neither his wife nor kin, I might not wail nor beat the breast for him. Ah, if I could have beaten the breast, I would have put on steel gloves or hedgehog skins to do it.
I waited three days, as the custom is, and then went to comfort (so they call it) his widow. It was not only duty and usage that drove me. Because he had loved her she was, in a way, surely enough the enemy; yet who else in the whole world could now talk to me?
They brought me into the upper room in her house where she sat at her spinning—very pale, but very calm. Calmer than I. Once I had been surprised that she was so much less beautiful than report had made her. Now, in her later years, she had won a new kind of beauty; it was a proud, still sort of face.
“Lady—Ansit,” I said, taking both her hands (she had not time to get them away from me), “what shall I say to you? How can I speak of him and not say that your loss is indeed without measure? And that’s no comfort. Unless you can think even now that it is better to have had and lost such a husband than to enjoy any man else in the world forever.”
“The Queen does me great honour,” said Ansit, pulling her hands out of mine so as to stand with them crossed on her breast, her eyes cast down, in the court fashion.
“Oh, dear Lady, un-queen me a little, I beseech you. Is it as if you and I had never met till yesterday? After yours (never think I’d compare them) my loss is greatest. I pray you, your seat again. And your distaff. We shall talk better to that movement. And you will let me sit here beside you?”
She sat down and resumed her spinning; her face at rest and her lips a little pursed, very housewifely. She would give me no help.
“It was very unlooked for,” said I. “Did you at first see any danger in this sickness?”
“Did you so? To me Arnom said it ought to have been a light matter.”
“He said that to me, Queen. He said it would be a light matter for a man who had all his strength to fight it.”
“Strength? But the Lord Bardia was a strong man.”
“Yes—as a tree that is eaten away within.”
“Eaten away? And with what? I never knew this.”
“I suppose not, Queen. He was tired. He had worked himself out—or been worked. Ten years ago he should have given over and lived as old men do. He was not made of iron or brass, but flesh.”
“He never looked nor spoke like an old man.”
“Perhaps you never saw him, Queen, at the times when a man shows his weariness. You never saw his haggard face in early morning. Nor heard his groan when you (because you had sworn to do it) must shake him and force him to rise. You never saw him come home late from the palace, hungry, yet too tired to eat. How should you, Queen? I was only his wife. He was too well-mannered, you know, to nod and yawn in a Queen’s house.”
“You mean that his work—?”
“Five wars, thirty-one battles, nineteen embassies, taking thought for this and thought for that, speaking a word in one ear, and another, and another, soothing this man and scaring that and flattering a third, devising, consulting, remembering, guessing, forecasting . . . and the Pillar Room and the Pillar Room. The mines are not the only place where a man can be worked to death.”
This was worse than the worst I had looked for. A flash of anger passed through me, then a horror of misgiving; could it (but that was fantastical) be true? But the misery of that mere suspicion made my own voice almost humble.
“You speak in your sorrow, Lady. But (forgive me) this is mere fantasy. I never spared myself more than him. Do you tell me a strong man’d break under the burden a woman’s bearing still?”
“Who that knows men would doubt it? They’re harder, but we’re tougher. They do not live longer than we. They do not weather a sickness better. Men are brittle. And you, Queen, were the younger.”
My heart shrivelled up cold and abject within me. “If this is true,” said I, “I’ve been deceived. If he had dropped but a word of it, I’d have taken every burden from him, sent him home forever, loaded with every honour I could give.”
“You know him little, Queen, if you think he’d ever have spoken that word. Oh, you have been a fortunate queen; no prince ever had more loving servants.”
“I know I have had loving servants. Do you grudge me that? Even now, in your grief, will your heart serve you to grudge me that? Do you mock me because that is the only sort of love I ever had or could have? No husband; no child. And you—you who have had all—”
”All you left me, Queen.”
“Left you, fool? What mad thought is in your mind?”
“Oh, I know well enough that you were not lovers. You left me that. The divine blood will not mix with subjects’, they say. You left me my share. When you had used him, you would let him steal home to me; until you needed him again. After weeks and months at the wars—you and he night and day together, sharing the councils, the dangers, the victories, the soldiers’ bread, the very jokes—he could come back to me, each time a little thinner and greyer and with a few more scars, and fall asleep before his supper was down, and cry out in his dream, ‘Quick, on the right there. The Queen’s in danger.’ And next morning—the Queen’s a wonderful early riser in Glome—the Pillar Room again. I’ll not deny it; I had what you left of him.”
Her look and voice now were such as no woman could mistake.
“What?” I cried. “Is it possible you’re jealous?”
She said nothing.
I sprang to my feet and pulled aside my veil. “Look, look, you fool!” I cried. “Are you jealous of this?”
She started back from me, gazing, so that for a moment I wondered if my face were a terror to her. But it was not fear that moved her. For the first time that prim mouth of hers twitched. The tears began to gather in her eyes. “Oh,” she gasped, “Oh. I never knew you also . . . ?”
“You loved him. You’ve suffered, too. We both . . .
She was weeping; and I. Next moment we were in each other’s arms. It was the strangest thing that our hatred should die out at the very moment she first knew her husband was the man I loved. It would have been far otherwise if he were still alive; but on that desolate island (our blank, un-Bardia’d life) we were the only two castaways. We spoke a language, so to call it, which no one else in the huge heedless world could understand. Yet it was a language only of sobs. We could not even begin to speak of him in words; that would have unsheathed both daggers at once.
The softness did not last. I have seen something like this happen in a battle. A man was coming at me, I at him, to kill. Then came a sudden great gust of wind that wrapped our cloaks over our swords and almost over our eyes, so that we could do nothing to one another but must fight the wind itself. And that ridiculous contention, so foreign to the business we were on, set us both laughing, face to face—friends for a moment—and then at once enemies again and forever. So here.
Presently (I have no memory how it came about) we were apart again; I now resuming my veil, her face hard and cold.
“Well!” I was saying. “You have made me little better than the Lord Bardia’s murderer. It was your aim to torture me. And you chose your torture well. Be content; you are avenged. But tell me this. Did you speak only to wound, or did you believe what you said?”
“Believe? I do not believe, I know, that your queen-ship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life.”
“Then why did you not tell me? A word from you would have sufficed. Or are you like the gods who will speak only when it is too late?”
“Tell you?” she said, looking at me with a sort of proud wonder. “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. You have taken Ilerdia now too. He will turn his back on his mother’s house more and more; he will seek strange lands, and be occupied with matters I don’t understand, and go where I can’t follow, and be daily less mine—more his own and the world’s. Do you think I’d lift up my little finger if lifting it would stop it?”
“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?”
“Woman,” said I, “I saved his life. Thankless fool! You’d have been widowed many a year sooner if I’d not been there one day on the field of Ingarn—and got that wound which still aches at every change of weather. Where are your scars?”
“Where a woman’s are when she has borne eight children. Yes. Saved his life. Why, you had use for it. Thrift, Queen Orual. Too good a sword to throw away. 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’.”
“It’s enough,” I cried. The air in her room was shot with crimson. It came horribly in my mind that if I ordered her to torture and death no one could save her. Arnom would murmur. Ilerdia would turn rebel. But she’d be twisting (cockchafer-like) on a sharp stake before anyone could help her.
Something (if it was the gods, I bless their name) made me unable to do this. I got somehow to the door. Then I turned and said to her,
“If you had spoken thus to my father, he’d have had your tongue cut out.”
“What? Afraid of it?” said she.
As I rode homeward I said to myself, “She shall have her Ilerdia back. He can go and live on his lands. Turn oaf. Grow fat and mumble between his belches about the price of bullocks. I would have made him a great man. Now he shall be nothing. He may thank his mother. She’ll not have need to say again that I devour her men-folk.”
But I did none of these things to Ilerdia.
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. Punished him too. Men have a hundred ways of mocking a man who’s thought to love his wife too well, and Bardia was defenceless; everyone knew he’d married an undowered girl, and Ansit boasted that she’d no need (like most) to seek out the ugliest girls in the slave-market for her household. I never mocked him myself; but I had endless sleights and contrivances (behind my veil) for pushing the talk in such directions as, I knew, would make others mock him. I hated them for doing it, but I had a bittersweet pleasure at his clouded face. 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. I would bring him within an ace of killing himself first.
But the result, when all those bitter hours were over, was a strange one. The craving for Bardia was ended. No one will believe this who has not lived long and looked hard, so that he knows how suddenly a passion which has for years been wrapped round the whole heart will dry up and wither. Perhaps in the soul, as in the soil, those growths that show the brightest colours and put forth the most overpowering smell have not always the deepest root. Or perhaps it’s age that does it. But most of all, I think, it was this. My love for Bardia (not Bardia himself) had become to me a sickening thing. I had been dragged up and out onto such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where it could not live. It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all. Heaven knows how we had tormented him, Ansit and I. For it needs no Oedipus to guess that, many and many a night, her jealousy of me had welcomed him home, late from the palace, to a bitter hearth.
But when the craving went, nearly all that I called myself went with it. It was as if my whole soul had been one tooth and now that tooth was drawn. I was a gap. And now I thought I had come to the very bottom and that the gods could tell me no worse.
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