by Ashley Starnes
IntroductionIf asked what morality looks like, many would say it’s listening to one’s conscience or, particularly if speaking to a Christian, following the instructions laid out in the Bible. However, C. S. Lewis describes a process of total moral transformation which is significantly more involved, including divine intervention in addition to personal choice and rule-following, and which bears a striking resemblance to plot elements found in standard fictional plot structure. Where the avoidance of evil and the effort to make good choices serves as the whole of the moral question for some, Lewis describes four separate, if sometimes overlapping, stages—self-deception, honest assessment, serious moral effort, and finally redeemed morality—that can be compared to the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of a story’s plot. This succession of stages can most clearly be seen in Lewis’s retelling of the myth of Psyche, his novel Till We Have Faces.
Exposition: Self-Justification and Self-Deception
In our flawed moral state, we naturally find ways of justifying or even completely ignoring our moral failings. Here we find the tin soldier in one of Lewis’s analogies: in the attempt to turn him into a real man he does not want to be made real, mistakenly thinks that he is being killed, and fights as hard as he possibly can to remain in his current state. “Before we can be cured we must want to be cured.” The preference to try and cure ourselves, or worse, the temptation to believe that there is nothing of which to be cured, keeps us in a scenario in which we are attempting to be good (or think we are) but are in fact seeking happiness as our ultimate goal, an impossible situation since, while holiness can produce happiness, the pursuit of happiness cannot produce morality.
Orual spends the greater portion of Till We Have Faces in this stage of the plot. She continually justifies her own selfish actions or overlooks them completely, avidly accuses the gods of punishing her without valid cause, and both actively and passively harms those around her throughout the process, all while thinking of herself as a martyr and demanding that everything happen on her own terms. “It had been somehow settled in [her] mind from the very beginning that [she] was the pitiable and ill-used one.” Even when shown the truth of situations, Orual refuses to acknowledge it for what it is, doggedly insisting that she is in the right and has been treated unfairly, even when threatening violence and blatantly manipulating or mistreating the people around her. Orual sees a glimpse of Psyche’s palace, claims the gods are mocking her, and eagerly accepts the faulty theories of Bardia and the Fox to make herself feel better, to justify her desire to control Psyche and ruin her happiness because Orual had not been the one to provide it for her. She even goes so far as to suggest, when the god appeared to her, that he changed the past to make her appear guilty: “He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself.” She is shown truth at this moment (and at other moments throughout the story) and dares to accuse the gods of wrongdoing rather than acknowledging her own sin. This is an excellent example of the lengths to which someone will go to avoid the realization of their own moral failure. Lewis’s description is unique but its silhouette is readily recognizable at the center of human nature. Every person contains this exposition in his own story though the specific details will obviously vary. It is where we all start in terms of morality.
Crisis: Honest Assessment
In the midst of all the denial and justification comes a point (or points) at which an honest voice is heard speaking the truth of our failures, sometimes a slap to the face and sometimes a gentle nudge to direct our focus. We have the choice to suppress the warning or heed it. When we choose the first option, we revert to the previous stage to begin again. This is seen in Orual’s dismissal of her glimpse of the palace, her suppression of her brief desire to let Psyche be happy, her refusal to hear that Psyche’s husband could be anything other than a villain, insisting that the gods hate her, etc. When we choose the second option, though, we turn a corner. This is the point at which Orual says that she must edit her book because
I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it. What began the change was the very writing itself…. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down (for I was speaking as before judges and must not lie) passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering. I did not, even when I had finished the book, see clearly many things that I see now. The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning—only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.
She begins to see the reality of her situation when she makes a legitimate effort to be honest about her story, and this attempt at sincere honesty provides clarity. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” When our focus shifts from ourselves and our natural motives to virtue and the sincere desire to be good (and not primarily happy), we begin to make real progress and see ourselves more and more clearly. “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him.… You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.” In the minds of many this stage of honest self-assessment and desire to be good, to make better choices, amounts to the peak of one’s personal moral journey. They would say that the only thing left is to follow through with those better choices and to continue being honest with oneself. For Lewis, though, this stage is more akin to the crisis point in a story’s plot; this is where the protagonist realizes the problem and attempts to effect change. Pride is identified and begins to be rejected.
The Try-Fail Cycle: Moral Effort and Repeated Failure
It is at this point that sincere moral effort begins. Lewis’s recommendation at this point is to “make some serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues.… Try six weeks. By that time, having, as far as one can see, fallen back completely or even fallen lower than the point one began from, one will have discovered some truths about oneself. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”
This stage can be seen in a handful of moments in Orual’s journey. She comments directly on it at one point: “I could not hold out half an hour…. I could mend my soul no more than my face.” She gives the Fox his freedom, sets out to improve conditions for the workers in Glome’s mines, gives Redival the husband she wants, and takes other steps to help the people in her kingdom. On the other hand, some of these actions are more selfless than others and for every success there seems to be a corresponding moral failure—her bitterness that the Fox might choose his home and family over her, her hostility toward Redival, the execution of Batta, her possessive love of Bardia, to name a few. The attempt to be virtuous is admirable in that it allows us to strengthen the desire to reach that goal and in a practical sense does improve our character. Certainly, we will make better choices when the desire to do good is present rather than only the desire for happiness, but for Lewis its primary purpose is to convince us that we need divine assistance.
Now we cannot…discover our failure to keep God’s law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.”
According to Lewis, under the right circumstances and with a decent natural temperament, we can appear to be exceptionally moral people but even at our natural best we are caught in this try-fail cycle precisely because our focus is centered on our actions and motives while God is looking for something related but different. “[W]hat God cares about is not exactly our actions. What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality—the kind of creature He intended us to be—creatures related to Himself in a certain way [and therefore related to others in a certain way].” For that to happen, we must reach a point, through the try-fail cycle, at which we recognize our inadequacy and seek God himself rather than seeking only moral actions.
Climax: Redeemed Morality
The climax of moral transformation (on Earth) is reached at the point when failure is recognized and the need for divine assistance is accepted and pursued. The climax is humility before God. Moral effort is still required but now Jesus is providing what is needed to succeed. “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as he was when he created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God.”
Something resembling the try-fail cycle will still occur but with more and more success and less and less failure, really more analogous to the falling action of the story. “For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person…. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself…beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part of you that is still tin.” The solution draws near and things are being put right. Now when we fail, it is not in vain. God is producing perseverance and dependence in us, moving us toward virtue with each choice and making us more into the creatures he means us to be.
The final stretch of Till We Have Faces shows us this stage in Orual’s story and it occurs in a relatively brief amount of time. Once she accepts that the last virtue she thought she possessed—her love for Psyche—was not the selfless love she imagined it to be, when she sees herself and the gods accurately, acknowledges that they had been right all along and that she had no excuse for her actions, she is finally able to change in a much more significant way than her previous efforts had allowed. Once Orual accepts her own failings and the illegitimacy of her accusations against the gods, accepts their judgment and the fact that she cannot fix herself, she receives more clarity. Shown Psyche’s suffering, her response is no longer justifications and denials. Instead she asks the Fox, “Did we really do these things to her? … And we said we loved her.” And when Psyche returns from her task, Orual falls at her feet and begs forgiveness, showing the new understanding she has gained in the process: “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you. I was a craver.”
Having tried her best to be good and failing and having recognized her actions for what they were, she finally reaches the climax: her moral redemption. When the god comes to her, she sees her reflection alongside Psyche’s. “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.” This harks back to Lewis’s assertion that, once we are in right relation to God, he will make us more like himself as well as most fully ourselves. Having moved through the previous stages and embraced God, Orual undergoes a radical change, not only in her actions but at her core. This is the climax of moral transformation.
ConclusionFor C. S. Lewis, moral transformation is a dynamic process and dramatic event with a very specific end result. It begins in a dark place and requires sincere effort, recognition of incompetence, and a turn to God—the exposition, crisis, try-fail cycle, and climax of one’s moral story. The process in reality is perhaps a bit messier than a typical plot structure but the categories fit well. Lewis assures us that the process a realistic one, that we possess the ability to become a Psyche with God’s assistance and will be if we allow God to have his way and embrace the process.
The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.
Lewis’s simple explanation of this moral transformation can be found in the instruction to Orual: “Die before you die.” Socrates said philosophy trains us how to die—and perhaps this is what’s most true about his dictum: we need to die to our vainglory, our self-aggrandizement, all the various maladies within that only God’s grace can excise and heal.
Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956.
 C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 97.
 Ibid., 59.
 Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 105.
 C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956), 256.
 Ibid., 132-133, 137-138, 144.
 Ibid., 173
 Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-254.
 Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 60
 Ibid, 56.
 Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 282.
 Ibid., 207, 212, 231-236.
 Ibid., 207, 212, 230, 233.
 Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 81.
 Ibid., 80.
 Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 103.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 60.
 Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 304.
 Ibid., 305.
 Ibid., 307-308.
 Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 118.
 Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 109.
 Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 279.