There is a narrative device that I dearly love, but of which I have only found two clear instances. (No doubt there are many others, but these are the only ones I know of.) I’m going to talk about C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I have written about several times before, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
You wouldn’t think the latter was a subject for intense analysis, but you guys, this is what happens when your two-year-old wants to watch “Llama, New Groove!” all the time.
Either way, these two sources are so drastically different, it’s a bit of a comedy to talk about them together, but they both have brilliant examples of a self-deceived narrator slowly, accidentally telling themselves the truth.
The Stories, One Silly, One Grave
It is not the same as an unreliable narrator, because they are showing you the real story as it really happened BUT their feelings about the story change drastically. Basically, as they tell their story, they start to see where they were wrong about what was really happening. The very act of telling the story brings them to humility, and then to the truth.
-In Till We Have Faces, Orual starts her book as a testament against the gods, who she believes have wronged her, and caused all her woes. In The Emperor’s New Groove, Kuzco begins his narrative with a desire to explain why everything that has happened to him is everyone else’s fault. Importantly, as Orual blames the gods (who are shown to be right), Kuzco blames Pacha, who is also shown to be kind and right.
-Orual is (eventually) Queen of her land, and Kuzco is Emperor of his. Both have power and are the sole source for information in the story, so they get to tell it their way.
-Orual’s unbelief and selfishness cause great harm to everyone around her, soaking up their lives, while Kuzco’s selfishness is what sets off the whole plot and causes both friends and enemies to lash out against him.
-Even when the gods have shown themselves, Orual harbors bitter anger against them for quite some time. Even when Pacha has proved himself a good friend, Kuzco doubts him at the drop of a hat.
-THEN we get back to the beginning, because both narrative stories basically start in media res: Orual telling her story up until the end of her reign in Glome, having all but given up on understanding the intent of the gods, and Kuzco until he is alone and abandoned in the forest, having given up on ever returning to human form.
-THIS IS THE GOOD PART: They both essentially interrupt themselves and tell themselves what’s really going on. In The Emperor’s New Groove, it is a little more straightforward. Kuzco’s narrative voiceover proceeds with his initial treatise–blaming Yzma and Pacha for his situation–but the in-story Kuzco shouts back at him telling him to stop, and that the audience already saw what happened…implying that they know it’s all really Kuzco’s own fault.
In Till We Have Faces there is a separation in the narrative. Orual says that she has read back over everything she has written and feels very differently now than she did at the time. She experiences new compassion for those she had written off. She reevaluates her choices and her sense of self-justification.
“What began the change was the very writing itself. Let no one lightly set about such a work. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant.”
“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.”
It’s like when we record our voice and then play it back: “Do I really sound like that?”
Or when we remember some intense argument we had with a loved one where we were world-class jerks, and can now acknowledge that, but at the time, we were so convinced of our own rightness.
I love this type of story because it shows real development, real change, and it matters so intensely in real life.
When we write our last testament–our great diatribe against whoever or whatever we blame–would we have the courage to tell the story in a way that will force us to reexamine our prejudices, our angers, our hates? Would we have the courage to question our original conclusions? Or do we rush past the story, hurry through the conflict, desperate to make sure we don’t see or hear or read anything with which we might be able to indict ourselves?
There are stories where characters gain pride and power, but this is a story of humility and surrender. It is a story of hearing our own voice and learning how we really sound, what we’re really saying.
Both Orual and Kuzco look their past selves right in the eye and tell them off. With Kuzco it’s easy because we, the audience, could see all along that he was wrong. But with Orual…there is plenty of room for us to agree with her anger, her lament, her grievance. Indeed the first person I recommended this book to came away with precisely that conclusion: everything that happened to her was so tragic and unfair.
But the point of that story is that maybe it’s not just Orual who isn’t seeing it right. It’s us. Maybe there was a window for us to make the right choice, to be kind in the face of meanness, or have belief in the face of grave doubt, but the window was narrow, and we were wrapped up in our own perspective, so when we saw it we hung back. And blamed everyone else.
“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered…When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well 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 that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
For the characters in these stories, that had to be a face first lowered to the ground with humility, then lifted up with new and bright understanding.