by C.S. Lewis (1956)
A retelling of Cupid and Psyche, based on its telling in a chapter of The Golden Ass of Apuleius. This story had haunted Lewis all his life, because he realized that some of the main characters' actions were illogical. As a consequence, his retelling of the story is characterized by a highly developed character, the narrator, with the reader being drawn into her reasoning and her emotions.
The first part of the book is written from the perspective of Psyche's older sister Orual, as an accusation against the gods. The story is set in the fictive kingdom of Glome, a primitive city-state whose people have occasional contact with civilized Hellenistic Greece. In the second part of the book, the narrator undergoes a change of mindset and understands that her initial accusation was tainted by her own failings and shortcomings, and that the gods are lovingly present in humans' lives. - Faded Page
“Psyche,” said I, leaping up, “I can’t bear this any longer. You have told me so many wonders. If this is all true, I’ve been wrong all my life. Everything has to be begun over again. Psyche, it is true? You’re not playing a game with me? Show me. Show me your palace.”
“Of course I will,” she said, rising. “Let us go in. And don’t be afraid whatever you see or hear.”
“Is it far?” said I.
She gave me a quick, astonished look. “Far to where?” she said.
“To the palace, to this god’s house.”
You have seen a lost child in a crowd run up to a woman whom it takes for its mother, and how the woman turns round and shows the face of a stranger, and then the look in the child’s eyes, silent a moment before it begins to cry. Psyche’s face was like that; checked, blank; happiest assurance suddenly dashed all to pieces.
“Orual,” she said, beginning to tremble, “what do you mean?”
I too became frightened, though I had yet no notion of the truth. “Mean?” said I. “Where is the palace? How far have we to go to reach it?”
She gave one loud cry. Then, with white face, staring hard into my eyes, she said, “But this is it, Orual! It is here! You are standing on the stairs of the great gate.”
If anyone could have seen us at that moment I believe he would have thought we were two enemies met for a battle to the death. I know we stood like that, a few feet apart, every nerve taut, each with eyes fixed on the other in a terrible watchfulness.
And now we are coming to that part of my history on which my charge against the gods chiefly rests; and therefore I must try at any cost to write what is wholly true. Yet it is hard to know perfectly what I was thinking while those huge, silent moments went past. By remembering it too often I have blurred the memory itself.
I suppose my first thought must have been, “She’s mad.” Anyway, my whole heart leaped to shut the door against something monstrously amiss; not to be endured. And to keep it shut. Perhaps I was fighting not to be mad myself.
But what I said when I got my breath (and I know my voice came out in a whisper) was simply, “We must go away at once. This is a terrible place.”
Was I believing in her invisible palace? A Greek will laugh at the thought. But it’s different in Glome. There the gods are too close to us. Up in the Mountain, in the very heart of the Mountain, where Bardia had been afraid and even the priests don’t go, anything was possible. No door could be kept shut. Yes, that was it; not plain belief, but infinite misgiving—the whole world (Psyche with it) slipping out of my hands.
Whatever I meant, she misunderstood me horribly.
“So,” she said, “you do see it after all.”
“See what?” I asked. A fool’s question. I knew what.
“Why, this, this,” said Psyche. “The gates, the shining walls——”
For some strange reason, fury—my father’s own fury—fell upon me when she said that. I found myself screaming (I am sure I had not meant to scream), “Stop it! Stop it at once! There’s nothing there.”
Her face flushed. For once, and for the moment only, she too was angry. “Well, feel it, feel it, if you can’t see,” she cried. “Touch it. Slap it. Beat your head against it. Here——” She made to grab my hands. I wrenched them free.
“Stop it, stop it, I tell you! There’s no such thing. You’re pretending. You’re trying to make yourself believe it.” But I was lying. How did I know whether she really saw invisible things or spoke in madness? Either way, something hateful and strange had begun. As if I could thrust it back by brute force, I fell upon Psyche. Before I knew what I was doing I had her by the shoulders and was shaking her as one shakes a child.
She was too big for that now and far too strong (stronger than I ever dreamt she could be) and she flung my grip off in a moment. We fell apart, both breathing hard, now more like enemies than ever. All at once a look came into her face that I had never seen there; sharp, suspicious.
Bardia rested as soldiers do; dead asleep in two breaths but ready (I have seen him tested since) to be wide awake in one if need were. I think I never slept at all. First there was the hardness and slope of the ground, and after that the cold. And besides these, fast and whirling thoughts, wakeful as a madman’s; about Psyche and my hard riddle, and also of another thing.
At last the cold grew so bitter that I slipped from under the cloak—its outer side was wet with dew by now—and began walking to and fro. And now, let that wise Greek whom I look to as my reader and the judge of my cause, mark well what followed.
It was already twilight and there was much mist in the valley. The pools of the river as I went down to it to drink (for I was thirsty as well as cold) seemed to be dark holes in the greyness. And I got my drink, ice-cold, and I thought it steadied my mind. But would a river flowing in the god’s secret valley do that, or the clean contrary? This is another of the things to be guessed. For when I lifted my head and looked once more into the mist across the water, I saw that which brought my heart into my throat. There stood the palace; grey, as all things were grey in that hour and place, but solid and motionless, wall within wall, pillar and arch and architrave, acres of it, a labyrinthine beauty. As she had said, it was like no house ever seen in our land or age. Pinnacles and buttresses leaped up—no memories of mine, you would think, could help me to imagine them—unbelievably tall and slender, pointed and prickly as if stone were shooting out into branch and flower. No light showed from any window. It was a house asleep. And somewhere within it, asleep also, someone or something—how holy, or horrible, or beautiful or strange?—with Psyche in its arms. And I, what had I done and said? what would it do to me for my blasphemies and unbelievings? I never doubted that I must now cross the river, or try to cross it, even if it should drown me. I must lie on the steps at the great gate of that house and make my petition. I must ask forgiveness of Psyche as well as of the god. I had dared to scold her—dared, what was worse, to try to comfort her as a child—but all the time she was far above me; herself now hardly mortal, if what I saw was real. I was in great fear. Perhaps it was not real. I looked and looked to see if it would not fade or change. Then as I rose (for all this time I was still kneeling where I had drunk), almost before I stood on my feet, the whole thing had vanished. There was a tiny space of time in which I thought I could see how some swirlings of the mist had looked, for the moment, like towers and walls. But very soon, no likeness at all. I was staring simply into fog, and my eyes smarting with it.
And now, you who read, give judgement. That moment when I either saw or thought I saw the House—does it tell against the gods or against me? Would they (if they answered) make it a part of their defence?—say it was a sign, a hint, beckoning me to answer the riddle one way rather than the other? I’ll not grant them that. What is the use of a sign which is itself only another riddle? It might—I’ll allow so much—it might have been a true seeing; the cloud over my mortal eyes may have been lifted for a moment. It might not; what would be easier than for one distraught and not, maybe, so fully waking as she seemed, gazing at a mist, in a half-light, to fancy what had filled her thoughts for so many hours? What easier, even, than for the gods themselves to send the whole ferly for a mockery? Either way, there’s divine mockery in it. They set the riddle and then allow a seeming that can’t be tested and can only quicken and thicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guess-work. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain? Psyche could speak plain when she was three; do you tell me the gods have not yet come so far?
When I came back to Bardia he was just awake. I did not tell him what I had seen; until I wrote it in this book, I have never told it to anyone.