Till We Have Faces

Orual has always seen herself as the ugly sister. Her father, the king of Glome, says her face will frighten men away. But Orual does have the love and attention of The Fox, an educated Greek slave who teaches Orual and her sisters. Most important of all, Orual has the love of her beautiful sister Psyche. But if you know the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which provides the main storyline of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, you’ll know that Psyche is not destined for a life of happy sisterly companionship. She is meant for something bigger. But what does that mean for Orual?

Lewis uses the story of Psyche and her sisters to explore ideas of belief and unbelief, self-perception and identity, family relationships, all-consuming love, and society’s images of God. The book’s narrator is Orual herself, and she opens with these words:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please, The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the Gods, especially the God who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge.

Teresa: This is probably my favorite of all of C.S. Lewis’s novels. Although I’ve read and enjoyed almost all his fiction, this one strikes me as so much richer and more complex than his other books. I’ve heard Christian readers complain that they can’t tell what he’s getting at, that there’s no clear Christ figure like Aslan in the Narnia books or obvious scriptural parallels, like the story of Adam and Eve is for Perelandra. As much as I love those other books, I adore this one precisely because the meaning isn’t clear. We really do have to grapple with whether Orual’s accusation to the Gods is fair.

Jenny: I, too, love this novel for the reasons you’re describing, but I do think it’s difficult. It seems to me that Lewis is not aiming at a straight allegory, where one figure stands for one real thing (like Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, or The Romance of the Rose.) Instead, he’s working with shadows and myths, where stories can be gripping and meaningful in and of themselves, but also figure and prefigure much larger and more important narratives. This means that you can’t ever say, “Well, Orual stands for X and Psyche means Y and so that works out to Z in the soul’s journey.” It’s far deeper and slipperier than that, and also a much better story.

Take, for instance, the figure of Ungit, the goddess of life and death and war and fertility and rebirth and who knows what else in the kingdom of Glome. We learn that she is also Astarte and Aphrodite — an extremely powerful and dangerous goddess. So far, so good. But later in the story, the old threatening “holy” Ungit is replaced by a beautiful Greek statue, and later still, Orual becomes Ungit, in a sense. The symbols shift, and make new shapes. It’s one thing that makes your brain really work while reading this novel.

Teresa: Yes, the characters shift and change as the story goes, as does Glome itself. Every time I thought I’d settled on a “meaning” for a character, that character changed, and the meaning had to as well. My church’s book club discussed this book last month, reading it a bit at a time over three weeks, and at the first meeting, someone said that of course Psyche is the Christ figure, and at that point in the story, she sort of was. But if you try to extend her role as a Christ figure into the entire novel, it doesn’t line up with traditional understandings of Christ. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the earlier symbolism, but it does mean this story is its own story, a place to explore bigger ideas, but not so much a place to teach a specific truth.

The clearest example of this shifting is in Orual herself. She’s the ugly sister who becomes the faceless Queen (always with a capital Q when Orual speaks of herself). She’s also sometimes Psyche, sometimes Ungit. She’s astonishingly selfish and deceptive of herself and others, but also strong, smart, and a good leader. Her people love her absolutely, but she does not love herself, which I found heart-breaking, even though I knew she had done a great wrong to Psyche. She’s a fully realized character who can’t be reduced to a simple symbol.

Jenny: During my latest reading of the book, my understanding worked around to the idea that Orual and Psyche are meant to help us understand (I purposely don’t use the word “represent” or “stand for” in this context) the two sides of the human soul. One side is beautiful, straight, loving, easily in relationship with God; the other is jealous, selfish, deceptive, and always struggling with God. The one side, out of misplaced love,  tempts the other into sin and then uses its own strength and intelligence to help win its way back to salvation. Perhaps Lewis was playing with the idea that human beings always trip themselves up.

But I’m making this sound like a theological treatise. In fact, it’s a story full of humor and pain, anger and gentleness. The character of the Fox is a wonderful example. He could have been a cardboard cutout, standing for Greek philosophy. Instead, he is a true friend to Orual, someone who doubts himself as much as he doubts the old gods.

Teresa: I like that reading of Psyche and Orual! But I agree with you that whatever symbolism and resonances we may find in the story, it’s not at all a theological treatise. (In fact, in his letters C.S. Lewis himself said there was no one reading of this book that he had in mind. He does suggest several themes that we can see —possessive love being one, the pain of seeing a loved one commit to something you don’t understand being another—but he wasn’t trying to get across one specific idea.)

And it is a compelling and sometimes heart-breaking story, partly because of characters like the Fox who don’t always act according to type. I’m always surprised by the compassion shown toward Redival, the third sister. Orual thoroughly dislikes her, but when we learn how she felt about Orual and Psyche’s close bond, we realize that she has a pain of her own. The characterization throughout is so very compassionate. And the story itself is full of surprises! It takes you places you had no idea you were going to go.

Jenny: You’re so right about Redival. It’s not the only place, either, where someone we thought was an enemy turns around to become sympathetic, at least briefly. That, of course, is the best part of any really good book. When Orual says, “How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?” it comes at a point in the novel where we have been through so much growth and development with her that we understand exactly what she means. Seeing through Orual’s eyes helped me understand more of the human heart. That’s all I ask, when I read. I love C.S. Lewis and would recommend almost anything he wrote, but for me, as a rich and complex novel, this tops them all.

This entry was posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Till We Have Faces

  1. Emily says:

    Speaking as someone for whom the cut-and-dried religious allegory of Aslan & the final bits of the Narnia books came as a HUGE turn-off, this novel sounds much more up my alley. I prefer allegories that are slippery, that shift underfoot and refuse to be easily pinned down. Thanks for the review, ladies – I hadn’t heard of this one before.

    • Teresa says:

      Emily, I know a lot of people feel that way about Narnia. It doesn’t really bother me, but I do think the obvious of what he’s saying makes the books less interesting.

  2. Jenny says:

    This sounds wonderful, and I always like hearing CS Lewis get compliments. :) I keep meaning to embark on a proper C.S. Lewis Reading Project, and read all his books in order, to see how his ideas progress. I’d love to read this, but I think I’d like it even more if I’d first read some writings by him that deal with similar themes but were written before he met his wife. (Roland Barthes would not approve.)

    • Teresa says:

      That’s quite a project, Jenny. I’ve never really bothered to sort out which of Lewis’s books were written before or after his marriage. I just have favorites I keep going back to (mostly this one, That Hideous Strength, Screwtape, The Four Loves, and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer).

  3. rebeccareid says:

    I really enjoyed (and still do) Narnia, mostly because of the childlike fantasy world, as well as the allegory. But I have read most of Lewis’ other works. I did read this one years ago, but I read it as a story and not a religious or allegorical thing at all, so most of what you state above doesn’t even ring a bell. I can’t remember characters names. I remember I enjoyed it but I guess I read it on a hugely superficial level.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I enjoy Narnia too, and I appreciate the allegorical elements, but I know they bother others. And I do think this one is more successful as a story because the symbols are more slippery.

  4. Sharon says:

    In Till We Have Faces, is it possible that Psyche represents Orual’s self and having to let Psyche go was about her dying to her own ego which she couldn’t do? Then she lived her whole life veiled. Like we have to die in order to be really free to live – dying to ego, getting self out of the way, so that the Divine can at last be expressed through us. Perhaps our ego (false sense of self) is like the wearing of a veil.

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.