Ungit of Till We Have Faces

HALLOWEEN 2015: BY VICTORIA BRAND

tillwe

A barbarian king lives in a land called Glome with his daughters: the elder is ugly, and the younger is beautiful. This king suffers great shame before his rivals and his own people alike: he lacks a male heir. Bold in a battle, and terrifying to slave and servant, he cannot defend himself from the shame, the rumors, and the whispers.

The widowed king seeks a wife from a neighboring kingdom to obtain a son. His new wife, timid, fragile and barely more than a child also, is soon pregnant. The day of the child’s birth is the day of the mother’s death.

The heart of the king rages at his greater disappointment: the infant is female. From where does this weakness come? These trials come in matters of fertility, fortune and harvest… matters of birth, life, and death. To the ancients, the gods hold sway in such matters. It seems the family’s adversary is none other than Ungit, the goddess of Glome. She is the very goddess the father believes is bound to serve him for the sake of the offerings he sends to her house.

In the seemingly-benevolent shadow of this terror, the three daughters grow: now the eldest, Orual, has courage. The middle one, Redival, is desirable. The youngest, Istra, has goodness, but it seems Ungit is provoked by that goodness. Thus, she lays her trap carefully: she controls what mortals cannot: the rains, the seasons, the crops, and the wars. With drought and danger from neighboring enemy nations, is she drawing a noose tight about the king and his household? Is Ungit not the source of the wretched illness that kills not the weak and the old but healthy young men and women, mothers and fathers in the prime of their strength? Does she not bait Istra into accepting the worship of the people (which only the gods may have) in the guise of healing the sick? And having caused a fault, Ungit demands redress. Her emissary (priest of the house Ungit) goes to the house of the royal family. Ungit’s demand? Nothing less than Istra, the royal daughter, as a precious sacrifice. There in the king’s compound stands the priest of Ungit, steady behind the blind gaze of his eerie bird mask.

The King sends his champions to fight for him: first, his scholar, a slave imported from the lands of the Greeks, “The Fox.” The Fox speaks of logical impossibilities, and tries to reason against the priest of Ungit. These well-aimed analytical darts bounce off the priest like so many launched toothpicks. Next, the King sends Bardia, commander of his guard. But Bardia resists his master; he can fight flesh and blood, but not powers and spirits. The priest of Ungit stands his ground, impervious in the face of death. A man who cannot be shaken is unsettling enough. Ungit receives her demanded sacrifice, to the great grief of Orual.

Throughout the years, it seems that Ungit continues to take and take. Though Orual transcends her womanliness and rules the nation after her father’s death, though she excels in all the arts of kingship and warrior-hood, it is nothing to her. Has not her ugliness denied her a husband and lover, child, and closest companion? Has not Ungit denied her the love she most desires—her own sister?

The wicked stepmothers of fairy tales tear off a young woman’s finery or assign her to hard labor. But the greater terror of Ungit, like a monster in a psychological thriller, is how she makes her victims like her own repellant image. Orual, as an elderly Queen, sits vigil in the house of Ungit and sees the temple women. She thinks, “how the seed of men that might have gone to make hardy boys and fruitful girls was drained into that house, and nothing given back; and how the silver that men had earned hard and needed was also drained in there, and nothing given back; and how the girls themselves were devoured and were given nothing back.”

Is not Orual herself like a spider sitting at the center of a web, Ungit-like, draining the lives and the love of those who serve her so faithfully? Has she become the very thing she hates? Ungit is an overwhelming adversary, a foe whose malevolent working to transform her prey is seemingly unavoidable. Yet there also is a greater grace at work, in the face of which, Ungit is impotent. Even as Ungit seeks to drain victims’ humanity, and though her power seems irresistible, Lewis asks, “What are you becoming?”

Doesn’t his question strike close to every woman’s fears? This is why Faces must not be read without context: its tensions and ambiguities puzzle the mind, will and heart. I recall the context I had for my first reading of it: I had just finished The Four Loves, filled with the same warnings but in plain words. I spoke of the darkness and the dangers of Ungit, but sometimes harder to bear is the intense longing for heaven the story can awaken within you. Such a burden must be shared, if only by finding out which friends are fellow sojourners so you can say, “I saw it too.”

If you’re not sure which of your friends read such intense, morally-challenging fiction, drop me a line at victoriabrand@ yandex.com I intend to share a virtual cup of coffee with every person who mails me about Till We Have Faces. Because… what does “The Fox” say? “Is not all the world of one blood?” I care about what sort of people my brothers and sisters are turning into. ♥

halloween2014

Victoria Brand is a Christian woman, passionate teacher, and an NF on the Briggs-Meyers Type Indicator. Her obsessions include: the Gospel, peacemaking, wounded people, cross-cultural ministry, storytelling, nerdy conversations with friends, and coffee. Her most exciting “new finds” in fiction lately are Flannery O’Connor and Marilynne Robinson. She also blogs about loving and honoring every part of the body of Christ.

 

 

 

 

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