Till We Have Faces

Three voices to follow up on my last post, and anchor it in my reading (because I really can’t stuff any more quotations into that last one):

In Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, one of the young adults caught up in the “sorrows of the valley,” the claustrophobic setting of the novel, challenges the handyman whose story holds the secrets of the recurring tragedies:

You’ve got to straighten yourself out over what you know and what you’ve read or been told. It’s a muddle inside you.

It might be that this (or indeed the character Gwyn from whose mouth it comes) is Garner’s own challenge to himself: it certainly chimes with some of the reflections Garner himself makes of his own life, seeking a unity between his book-learning, his understanding of landscape and his search for personal belonging, that he expresses most vividly (for me in Boneland and Thursbitch). To know that Garner has sat where we took this photo and that from this has come a great work of fiction on myth and ritual,  time and belonging I still find immensely moving. The Matter of Britain as autoethnography? I read much of his work as born from these tensions, and really hope the tensions have not been too painful, the knots too hard to cut – but I suspect this is a fond hope.

Susan Cooper maybe has the keener knife at the end of Silver on the Tree, her final book in the Dark is Rising sequence, when (as I’ve noted before) she takes the task of straightening out the mythic and moral muddle of fantasy and hands it back to the reader:

We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control…. For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.

In an earlier writing period – although not much earlier, really, from today’s perspective, although between the 50s and 70s seems a great gulf fixed – C S Lewis comes very close to this “muddle” in the life-long anguish of regret and misdirected affections of Queen Orual, the protagonist-narrator of  Till We Have Faces,  for me his most moving and clear-sighted novel. Here, towards the end of the book, she challenges herself and the world view that has been disintegrating around her:

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over… I see now why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

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