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The Mask that Everyone Wears
on 28 July 2003
Myths are often a distillation of human experience and knowledge, pared down to an easily digestible story that is both memorable and instructive. No less so here, as Lewis takes the tale of Cupid and Psyche and adds a small change to the basic tale - but that change reverberates and focuses the message that Lewis is imposing on the tale, a message about what love is versus what many normally think it is.
Lewis sets the tale in the `barbarian' country of Glom, with a King obsessed with getting a son, and thereby cursed with three daughters. Orual is the supremely ugly one, Psyche just as beautiful as Orual is ugly, and the third sister is the personification of greed and petty jealousy. But it is Orual that the book follows, down deep into her basic outlook about herself, her relationship with the Gods, and most especially how her feelings for Psyche and her sense of propriety cause her to commit blackmail in the name of love. Lewis clearly shows that love that does not place the desires of the loved one above any personal sense of right/wrong/duty/honor is not a true love, but rather the product of selfishness, of the `I know what's best for my love' syndrome.
But this is merely the beginning to the layers of philosophy present in this book, as it calls into question not only if there are gods, but just how mortals can or must perceive them if they exist, and how much `God' is present in everyone. Masks are a symbol here, from the veil that Orual takes to wearing, to those masks used by the priesthood when performing their embassies for their god, to the masks that everyone presents to the outside world. Also covered is the value of good deeds versus an irredeemable sin, what vital tasks man is burdened with during his short lifetime, and even the value of philosophy as a field of study. All this and more is hidden underneath this apparently simple story, with little direct exposition of these ideas until this last portion of the book, which is written as a dream allegory.
The characterization of Orual is excellent - she is person you can recognize and feel with, and her dilemmas are ones we all have faced, though perhaps not in such grandiose terms. Psyche, the King, and Fox, the sister's Greek slave teacher, are drawn with enough depth to understand their motivations, and provide the proper environment so that each person's actions are understandable and the plot action inevitable.
I did feel that the last section of book went a little too far in the way of symbolism and philosophy, that perhaps a more action-oriented explication of the points Lewis was trying to present in this section would have been better. But this is certainly a book that is good for more than one reading, with a timelessness to its messages, and told with skill and great thought.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)