I first read Till We Have Faces in high school, thirty-plus years ago. Most of it went over my head, and my overall impression was rather dull and dismal–a conception not entirely off the mark, as much of the internal life of Orual, the main character, amounts to that.
But my faith in Lewis, along with a recent renewed interest in fairy stories and Greek mythology, inspired me to try again. I was not disappointed in my expectations of a deeper, richer experience this time around. Lewis considered Till We Have Faces, his final novel, to be his best work.
The book, subtitled A Myth Retold, is inspired by the second-century story of Cupid and Psyche. Written by the Greek Apuleius, it is, strictly speaking, a fairy tale rather than a myth. Apuleius’s work inspired, among many other stories, the 18th-century Beauty and the Beast, by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, which has, in turn, inspired many modern spin-offs.
In Lewis’s version, Psyche is the inconceivably beautiful younger sister of the homely Orual. When their kingdom suffers a relentless series of disasters, their father, the king, consigns Psyche to the fate all too common to beautiful princesses in fairy tales. She is to be sacrificed to a god; sacrificed or married–she is uncertain which.
On the eve of the fatal day she confesses to Orual, who throughout Psyche’s life has acted more as mother than sister, that she has always nurtured a secret longing for death. In response to Orual’s protestations, Psyche asserts the longing was greatest when she was happiest, overwhelmed by the greatest beauty. She felt that “somewhere else there must be more of it. … The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing … to find the place where all the beauty came from” (Harcourt 1956, p. 75).
Those familiar with Lewis will recognize this theme, which surfaces elsewhere in his fiction as well as in his essays. In “The Weight of Glory” he asserts that exquisite earthly joys reflect the greater grandeur of God’s country–paradise, heaven, whatever name one gives to that state of perfection for which we were created. “They are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Despite her sister’s seeming resignation to her fate, Orual is, naturally, brokenhearted. But she is helpless to prevent the tragedy. As things fall out, it is weeks before Orual is able to go to the mountain of sacrifice herself and learn what has befallen her sister.
When Orual finds Psyche alive and well, she is naturally elated. But her delight is soon tempered by the discovery that her sister is mad. For Psyche insists she lives in a palace and is wedded to a god who comes to her only at night and forbids him to look at her. Orual, who sees nothing but a mountain meadow, attempts in vain to persuade Psyche to come home with her. Psyche refuses and urges Orual to stay and see the god for herself.
I will leave off the summary here to avoid plot spoilers. (If you don’t want to read theme revelations, you might want to stop now). Throughout the remainder of the book Orual defies any suggestion that she was unable–or has willfully refused–to see what was truly there. The narrative purports to be Orual’s indictment, written near the close of her life, of the gods’ injustice.
Eventually Orual realizes what she has written is really a self-accusation. The veil she donned to hide her features upon succeeding to her father’s throne comes to represent the concealment of her own true self from herself.
One of the most common messages conveyed in all nature of media is to “be yourself.” That injunction carries a certain amount of wisdom. Rarely, however, are we encouraged to truly “know thyself” (an ancient Greek maxim appropriate to Lewis’s book). We are told we are glorious, we are worthy, we are beautiful. The grain of truth in all these is that we were created to be those things. But something has gone wrong. And a great deal of ugliness is buried beneath all our attempts to be “enough.”
Redemption, too, is a popular contemporary theme. Merriam-Webster defines “to redeem” as “to offset or compensate for a defect” (emphasis mine.) Redemption can only take place when one acknowledges that defect–an act also known as repentance.
For Lewis, a devout Christian, Orual’s recognition of her own consuming greed was not merely an indictment of her essential nature but the prerequisite for redemption. In Orual’s case, redemption is provided by the sufferings of the divine-human Psyche and her immortal bridegroom; in our case, by the death and resurrection of the God-incarnate Jesus Christ.