The Mythic Christ
Frazer’s Dying God in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces
by Dominic Manganiello
The Golden Bough, published in several volumes between 1890 and 1915, captivated the modern literary imagination at the very moment when, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “the most massive and compelling of all stories of resurrection had lost much of its hold upon the world.”1 For the high modernists, James Frazer’s epoch-making account of ancient myths about a dying and reviving god signalled the eclipse of biblical grand narrative and its gospel truth. Even the young C. S. Lewis at first imbibed the relativistic spirit of the new anthropology. “All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name,” he wrote in 1916, “are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki.” Christianity was therefore a supreme fiction, “one mythology among many.”2
Ironically, an atheist tutor of Lewis shattered his pupil’s rationalist assumptions with the off-the-cuff remark, “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”3 After this bombshell, Lewis slowly came round to accepting the theory Chesterton advanced in The Everlasting Man about the emergence of true religion. Analogies between pagan myth and Christianity in fact indicated that primitive man had inklings of the truth, leading toward the full revelation contained in sacred Scripture. On this view, Lewis concluded that Frazer’s Dying God, “without ceasing to be myth,”4 became the supreme fact of human history. In what follows, I will try to show how Till We Have Faces reflects the paradigm shift in Lewis’s thinking about myth.
Between Reason & Piety
Orual, the rebellious protagonist of the novel, moves uneasily between the stolid rationalism of the Fox, who dismisses all myths as lies, and the fervid piety of the old priest, who offers blood sacrifices to the gods. These contrasting attitudes of skepticism and reverence come to a head in a scene from childhood that remains indelibly etched in Orual’s memory. When a plague, followed by drought and famine, afflicts the region of Glome, the priest informs King Trom that there will be “no mending of all our ills till the land is purged.”5 It appears the royal decree ordering the castration of Tarin, the young companion of the king’s daughter Redival, has offended Ungit, the temple goddess of fertility. Since the king’s act causes moral pollution or miasma, it requires expiation in the form of human, not animal, sacrifice: “In the Great Offering the victim must be perfect. For in holy language a man so offered is said to be Ungit’s husband, and a woman is said to be the bride of Ungit’s son” (56–57).
The Fox immediately dismisses this priestly logic as sheer nonsense: “A shadow is to be an animal which is also a goddess which is also a god.” Although subtle “Greek wisdom” might reduce a solemn mystery to an incredible tale of transmogrification, the priest retorts sharply, “it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both” (58).
This animated exchange makes a lasting impression on Orual in more ways than she at first imagines. Although it is clear to her whose argument is stronger, she reaches an unspoken verdict in favour of her mentor: “I would that moment have hanged the Priest and made the Fox a king if power had been given me” (59). Through Orual’s unequivocal response, Lewis dramatizes Frazer’s understanding of myth as a rudimentary error whose hidden meaning supposedly lies in the vegetation cycle. Orual fears the priest because of the “holiness of the smell that hung about him—a temple-smell of blood . . . and burnt fat and singed hair and stale incense” (19). She associates the putrid odour of holy places with what seem to be rites of debauchery performed in honor of Ungit:
When Psyche agrees to become the priest’s votive offering, Orual vilifies her beloved sister as one of “Ungit’s girls,” who live in a veritable pig’s “stye” (134, 172). Here Lewis is likely drawing on Frazer’s account of the annual mating ritual of the great Mother goddess, who enjoined upon her nubile female devotees the “sacrifice” of prostituting themselves with male strangers in the sanctuary so as to ensure the fruitfulness of the earth and all its creatures. This form of “sanctified harlotry”6 scandalizes Orual, for it reveals the seedy side of religiosity, or what she calls “the horror of holiness” (62).7
Orual also abhors the violence of the sacred. Nietzsche’s sweeping aphorism in The Genealogy of Morals, “all religions are at bottom systems of cruelty,”8 best expresses her deeply held conviction. In Orual’s eyes, the priest becomes a ruthless executioner bent on immolating Psyche—the chosen scapegoat—to feed the insatiable vengeance of the gods. Orual’s contempt for the idea of sacrificial substitution, moreover, recalls Frazer’s own dismissive attitude in The Golden Bough:
The attempt to reduce the principle of transference to the level of primitive superstition, however, made the famous anthropologist an “unwitting accomplice” of its compelling logic. In Rene Girard’s view, Frazer “was perpetually engaged in a ritualistic expulsion and consummation of religion itself, which he used as a sort of scapegoat for all human thought.”10 The sacrificial character of Orual’s misprision emerges in a similar manner. As a rationalist, she thinks the gods exist only in the realm of the imagination, and yet she blames them for causing human suffering and her personal misery. Her long-winded tirade, in fact, accentuates the gods’ relish for victimage: “You’re blood drinkers and man-eaters. I’m past that” (303). Ironically, the more Orual tries to wash her hands of the taint of deistic barbarism, the more her gibes and violence of speech implicate her in the very same type of brutish behavior.
Orual’s charge, then, recoils on her. An epiphanic moment forces a total reevaluation of her own motives. This turning point occurs during a difficult interview with Lady Ansit, the widow of Bardia, the king’s loyal guard as well as Queen Orual’s. During the visit, Ansit accuses the queen of having worked her late husband to death in order to satisfy her voracious greed: “Your queenship drank up his blood year by year and ate out his life. . . . 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” (274–275).
Confronted with her own bloodthirstiness, Orual protests but to no avail. On later reflection, she acknowledges the truth of the accusation: “It was all true; truer than Ansit could know” (276). She treated all her loved ones—Psyche included—with the same selfishness and cruelty she had formerly attributed to the gods. This shocking revelation leads to another. In a visionary mirror scene,11 Orual discovers that she is the goddess she loathes the most: “To say that I was Ungit meant that I was as ugly in soul as she; greedy, blood-gorged” (292). By desiring to take hold of the lives of other people, Orual now realizes, “she was in effect demanding sacrifices.”12 She was unwittingly initiating her own religious cult, the very offense the old priest had warned against: “I hear of terrible doings in this land; mortals aping the gods and stealing the worship due to [them]” (55).
The recognition of her self-idolatry prompts Orual to probe more deeply into the question of Ungit’s identity. When Arnom, the new priest of the temple, reveals that Ungit symbolizes the earth, Orual is left wondering how the goddess can be at once an archetypal mother, the mother of the god of the mountain, and his wife to boot. The answer? “He [the god of the mountain] is the air and the sky; for we see the clouds coming up from the earth in mists and exhalations. . . . That means that the sky by its showers makes the earth fruitful” (282).
Arnom’s explanation echoes the claim of Max Mueller (1823–1900) that all ancient myths refer to meteorological and cosmological phenomena. “If you start from a naturalistic philosophy,” Lewis maintained, “then something like the view of . . . Frazer is likely to result.”13 But Orual, like the later Lewis, is no naturalist. If myths are meant to be so straightforward, she asks pointedly, why are they wrapped up in so strange a fashion? Arnom’s terse reply—“to hide [them] from the vulgar”—seems to suggest that myths are supposedly a repository of divine revelation. The edifying truths they contain are to be kept hidden from all but the initiates because common people are bound to translate them as “filthy tales” of an impious nature that equate (in Freudian fashion) the numinous with the sexual. Paradoxically, this view betrays a profound distrust of primitive stories as concrete embodiments of the supernatural. Arnom’s position is no less condescending than the conclusion drawn by Frazer: Myths retain their hold only among “the dull, the weak, the ignorant, the superstitious, who constitute, unfortunately, the vast majority of mankind.”14 Such negative rationalizations begin to strike Orual as irrational; they fail to uncover the actual meaning of the sacred.
An incident that occurs during the annual spring fertility ritual brings this truth to light. While in attendance, Orual observes a distraught peasant woman enter the temple and offer a pigeon as a sacrifice to Ungit. Weeping bitterly, this poor woman sinks down on her face at the feet of the goddess and stays in that position for a long time. Unexpectedly, the weeping ceases, the woman rises with a grave look, and yet, Orual comments, “it was as if a sponge had been passed over her. The trouble was soothed.” The woman tells the queen the goddess has indeed strengthened her, but that she would never have knelt down before the shapeless stone representing the object of worship in the new religion: “That other, the Greek Ungit . . . She’s only for nobles and learned men. There’s no comfort in her” (283). These words convince Orual that Arnom’s privilege of a private gnosis cannot account for or even match the ordinary experience of humble faith. The simple woman’s witness, coupled with the “joy” of the common people attending the festival, touches Orual in “a new way” and truly amazes her. It awakens in her a sense of the numinous and a longing to meet the Lord who is no respecter of persons (cf. Acts 10:34).
Death & Healing
This sense of wonder culminates in a visionary encounter with a transfigured Fox. In this crucial epiphany, the teacher apologizes to his former pupil for having misled her:
This inspired advice helps Orual make some sense of the god’s cryptic oracle: “Die before you die. There is no chance after ” (291). She must die, in other words, to herself, to her selfish desires, if any hope of salvation is to exist after her physical death. Although this seems like a hard saying, Orual’s selfless devotion to the people of Glome in her role as queen predisposes her to follow the divine injunction. As Peter J. Schakel puts it, “Her life of toil and suffering—physically in battle and mentally in toil—rather than death, becomes her sacrifice.”15 Orual’s new life revolves around what she can give to others rather than what she can get from them. Generosity replaces greed as the motivating impulse of her actions. This metanoia, or radical change of heart, depends on slaying the old self, according to St. Augustine, and offering it up in sacrifice.16
Orual eventually comes to a bona fide understanding of what it means to make an intimate oblation of one’s being. Before the god rescues her, she misinterprets this mysterious truth by attempting suicide. Later, the Fox enlightens her by referring to a series of tableaux vivants, which show Psyche undertaking four assigned chores. To her great surprise Orual learns that she “bore the anguish” while Psyche “achieved the tasks” (312) of sorting seeds of grain, acquiring golden wool, fetching a cup of water, and descending to the Deadlands. By sharing these seemingly unbearable burdens, Orual anticipates the kenosis, or self-emptying of Christ (cf. Phil. 2:5–11), that Hopkins called “the great sacrifice.”17
Orual marvels at how this “way of exchange” or substitution can render any one happy. But this is precisely what she witnesses: Psyche “was merry and in good heart. I believe, from the way her lips moved, she was singing” (310–311). Psyche’s actions resonate with the key notes of the Old Testament song of the suffering servant. Her naturally Christian soul18 prepared for its great mission from the time in her youth that she showed compassion for the people of Glome in their pain. As Orual tells her, “You healed them, and blessed them, and took their filthy diseases upon yourself” (47).19 She had no sooner provided this relief than a groundswell of public opinion denounced her as the “accursed.” To appease the gods, Psyche is led up a mountain and fastened to a holy tree. She is left there to meet a brutal death, or so Orual presumes. But Psyche is “alive and well and . . . happy” (149) as if to confirm the Fox’s obscure comment about her: “Terribly does she resemble an undying spirit” (41).
Sacrifice & Surgery
This dramatic reversal of fate, however, cannot be adequately explained by Frazer’s anthropology. For Lewis, the “repeated drama of the buried seed and the re-arising corn,” along with the centuries-old practice of animal or human sacrifice, afforded partial glimpses of the biblical truth that “without shedding of blood there is no remission” of sin (Heb. 9:22). While, at first, such ideas might have applied only to the growth of crops and to the offspring of the local tribe, later, in the context of the Mysteries, they referred to “the spiritual death and resurrection of the individual.”20
This new focus on the fruitfulness of “spiritual sacrifices” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5) informs Psyche’s interior longing to be with the god of the mountain despite the hardships she finds on the way there (82–84). The Fox explains to Orual how they had prevented Psyche from seeking the face of the one she loved (cf. Ps. 26), the bridegroom of her soul:
Psyche’s willingness to be purified by a series of trials prefigures the great self-offering of Jesus, who “for the joy set before him, endured a cross” (Heb. 12:2). Since the god advises Orual, “You also shall be Psyche,” she is set to experience the same blessedness that results from partaking of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) or from “atonement.” The “temple-smell of blood” that initially repelled Orual is replaced by the temple dedicated to her deified sister, “one of the small, peaceful gods who are content with flowers and fruit for sacrifice” (249). Mysteriously, Orual senses the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15) in the “honey-sweetness” and “warming, breathing perfection” (133) of Psyche. Her magnanimous gesture on behalf of others foreshadows the “sweetsmelling savour” of the ultimate sacrifice that destroyed death and restored life” (Eph. 5:1–2).21
Orual’s own self-sacrifice allows her to view justice in a clearer light. At the outset, she claims that human beings are nothing more than the playthings of the gods; they blow us up like big bubbles before pricking us with some “new agony” (105). In retrospect, she comes to believe that the “gods’ surgery” (263) is salutary for her soul. Their benevolence looks forward to Christ’s greater Love when he delivered mankind with his blood and executed, in Dante’s memorable phrase, “the just vengeance.”22 Justice appears ugly at first sight, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus;23 the more one comes to love it, however, the more one comes to find it beautiful. This central paradox also operates in the powerful closing scene of the novel, in which Orual sees the “most dreadful, the most beautiful” face of the god of the mountain. “Even the love between the sexes,” to quote Lewis, “is, as in Dante, ‘a lord of terrible aspect.’”24 By participating in Psyche’s sufferings (cf. Col. 1:24), then, Orual begins to see the “terrible beauty” of justice tempered by mercy and fulfilled in love.
An Ageless & True Myth
Retelling the Cupid and Psyche myth as a preparatio evangelica25 enables Lewis to hint at how the Ageless Story transcends the substitutionary violence associated with ancient fertility rites. Psyche’s self-offering as a propitiatory victim to the gods and Orual’s fulfilment of burdensome tasks for her sister constitute a shadowy preface to Christ’s great act of atonement for humanity’s sake, the sacrifice, as St. Paul says, that put an end to all sacrifices (Rom. 6:10). No more blood for blood. Orual no longer sees religion as an illusion, as Frazer (and Freud) did. The eyes of faith prompt her to accept the evidence of things unseen, for, as St. Augustine observed, “We see the things which you have made, [Lord,] because they exist. But they only exist because you see them.”26 This supernatural vision informs the interior clarity with which Orual moves from cupiditas to caritas.27
“Vision” also acts as a hermeneutic metaphor for Lewis’s understanding of myth. W. B. Yeats claimed that Frazer’s magnum opus had made Christianity “look modern and fragmentary.”28 The author of The Golden Bough, like the bricoleur in Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind, had tried to reconstruct the common myth of the dying god scattered throughout ancient cultures by comparing its remaining fragments, and drawing parallels between the life of Jesus and the stories of Osiris, Attis, and Adonis. Frazer assumed that all religions were relative; Christianity held no claim to uniqueness. Lewis opposed this “modernist” approach and proposed instead the idea of a ubiquitous myth “coming gradually into focus”:
Christianity was not a “myth” in Reinhold Niebuhr’s sense of “a symbolic representation of non-historical truth.”30 Nor could its kerygma, or essence, be obtained by stripping it of its mythical dimension, as Rudolf Bultmann claimed. For Lewis the “grand miracle” of Christianity is its character of a “true myth” that merits our “imaginative embrace.”31 Arnom’s discourse on the “sky” myth in Till We Have Faces points inadvertently to “the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact,”32 which occurs in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. The myth surprises Orual by the joy of its truth in the Person she meets face to face at the end of her life. •
1. Trilling adds, “Perhaps no book has had so decisive an effect upon
modern literature as Frazer’s.” See Beyond Culture (New
York: Viking Press, 1965), p. 14.
Dominic Manganiello is a professor of English literature at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of books on the culture of modernism, including T. S. Eliot and Dante (Palgrave), as well as articles on the Inklings, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Mythic Christ” first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.