Review: C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, 1956 (Part 2)

Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,
Him I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me! (Job 19:23–27)

The Myth Retold: Summary of Book One

Part of the twist Lewis spins in his retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is that he has chosen to narrate the story in the first-person perspective of the Psyche’s half sister Orual, who writes her tale as the aged and dying queen of Glome (a fictional barbarian city-state set in antiquity north of Greece). Orual was only an onlooker of this drama which unfolded with her sister and Cupid.

The story is divided in two uneven parts, with the first part (“Part One”) taking up nearly 80 percent (284/352 pages in my 2020 print edition) of the runtime of the story. The latter part (“Part Two”) belongs with the analysis of the entire novel, so I will reserve that portion of the summary for the third and final article considering C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.

In the first part of the narrative, Orual recounts the events and persons of her early childhood through her late adulthood and even to her golden years, concluding with one of her final official queenly ventures outside her kingdom. On this last expedition (recounted in the final chapter of Part One), Queen Orual chanced upon a temple shrine dedicated to the worship of Psyche, who had evidently been deified. The presiding priest answered her inquiry, and it was his telling (wrongful, in Orual’s thinking) of the story of Orual and Psyche which finally incited the narrating queen to finally put her complaint against the gods to paper. Such is the nature of the first part of her story: she wrote her story as an accusation of the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain (namely, Cupid), saying “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” (3). The story proceeds, but this context stands as a stable background for the whole book. This fictional story stands as a kind of anti-theodicy—or, at least, that is what the opening pages would lead the reader to believe. (In actuality, the story is a profound and penetrating defense of the divine Lover, as made clear in the conclusion and final analysis of the story). Orual’s complaint initially is twofold: the gods have hatefully mistreated her, firstly, by not revealing themselves or their purposes plainly, and, secondly, by taking Orual’s beloved Psyche away from her. Later, her complaint clarifies: she seeks to indict the gods for lying about (or misrepresenting) Orual by portraying her (through the spreading story told by the priest at Psyche’s shrine) as knowingly jealous of Psyche.

In the opening chapters, after introducing the genre of the book as that of complaint, Lewis, through Orual, introduces several other characters—Redival, Orual’s wanton younger sister; King Trom, their unlovely father, absentee at best and neglectful, menacing, and abusive at worst (henceforth only referred to by Orual as “the King” and never as “Father”); and “the Fox,” a Greek prisoner-of-war purchased by the King as a royal slave to tutor his would-be heir in all manner of Greek wisdom.
The first memory Orual recounts is that of her mother’s funeral, at which time she and Redival’s heads were shorn, and she herself begins to learn of her own ugliness when her hair is compared scornfully with the golden curls of her younger sister’s. Their neglectful father, the king, explicitly mocks Orual’s ugliness by dragging her to his extravagant full-length mirror to peer at herself and see herself the way every other person in the city viewed her: as unlovely and hardly becoming a royal princess. When the king arranges a marriage for himself in order to shore up alliances and provide himself a male heir, Orual is directed to veil her face lest the King’s bride be disgusted upon her arrival. The new queen (who is not bothered to be named) dies in childbirth, bearing the outraged king of Glome yet another daughter, who is named Psyche.

At every stage of life, Psyche is beautiful beyond measure, and Orual loves her obsessively, more like an overbearing mother than a half-sister. Thus, even from the time of her youth, Orual self-identifies as the proverbial (literal) ugly sister when compared to Redival, and especially when compared to the superlative beauty of Psyche. But Orual is not envious of her sisters’ relative beauty, rather they were content to happily sit at the Fox’s feet in their everyday tutoring. As Redival matured, she turned her attention to the interest expressed towards her by the young men, and her wantonness spelled the end of their carefree days of bliss. Henceforth, the Fox, Orual, and Psyche were to chaperone and anchor the unwilling Redival to their trio.

Orual’s relationship with Psyche is stressed to the breaking point (for which she blames the gods’ machinations) when Psyche, now a teenager, begins to be venerated by the townspeople for her graceful beauty. When a plague swept through the land, the people supposed Psyche might be able to cure them by laying her hands on the sick. This superstition obviously did not work, and Psyche naturally fell ill herself from the contagious disease. When the plague eventually passed, the High Priest of Ungit presented himself to the King to suggest the time-tested solution to cure a land’s ills—offer a human sacrifice to the gods. The lot had (conveniently) fallen upon Psyche as the Accursed. The priest and the Fox sparred with words, the Fox trying to demystify the old pagan religion by Greek philosophy and classical reasoning, but in the end, resigning himself to having already lost the battle for Psyche’s life.

Unassailed by the Fox’s rebuttals, the High Priest of Ungit explained that the Accursed was guilty of a capital crime to be executed by the gods themselves, but, paradoxically, the Accursed must also be the very cream of the crop—who would offer a blemished sacrifice to the gods? Or who would render an impure bride to meet the gods in ritualistic matrimony? As such, the Accursed would expiate the sin from the whole land as the victim would be ravaged by Ungit, or by Ungit’s son as it may be, whom the priest would ominously refer to as “the Shadowbrute.” Curiously, the old High Priest describes the love of Aphrodite (Ungit in the language of Glome) in this way: “Some say the loving and the devouring are all the same thing” (56).

When Orual went to comfort Psyche the night before she would be escorted to the mountain, Orual could not get her fair sister to consider the happier days of their past, of all the time Orual had poured into her sister, or to think of how much of their lives they had yet to spend together. With cheerful resolve, Psyche refused to be dissuaded from going against with her allotted marriage-sacrifice. She replied to her sister, urging her not to worry, saying “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing—all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed, it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me…” (86-87).

Weeks after Psyche was left alone atop the Mountain, presumed dead by the gods’ judgment, Orual resolved to go and collect Psyche’s remains for a proper good-bye and burial, taking with her the captain of the guard, a faithful man named Bardia. But when they summited the Mountain, they found Psyche alive and well, healthy but dressed in rags. Psyche recounts how a god rescued her and spirited her away to this valley of refuge at the top of the mountain. However, Orual cannot see the palace about which Psyche kept describing. Although Psyche seemed well-supplied based on her glowing health, Orual couldn’t fathom how she would weather the winter without shelter or appropriate clothing, so she urged Psyche to return home to Glome with her. Psyche refused, saying she would not and could not leave her beloved, and that she had all she ever wanted or could ever need by the provision of her loving husband. Defeated, Orual left the unseen castle, and returned to Bardia and their camp on the other side of the river. Unable to sleep, Orual walked to the river, and as she knelt to drink, she lifted her eyes and beheld the castle, exactly as Psyche described it, in labyrinthine and splendid beauty, fashioned with such architecture foreign to their lands so that it was no trick of her mind or conjured up by some long-forgotten memory, unmistakably real and no figment of her imagination. Orual considered how she ought to repent and beg forgiveness for her blasphemy and unbelief, for her harsh scoldings towards her sister. As she considered the undeniable attraction and calling she could feel towards the holy and wondrous beauty hidden within this castle, she rose to her feet, and the castle vanished. Orual returned to Glome without her sister.

After much deliberation and counsel from the Fox and Bardia (in which Lewis puts forth a version of his “Liar, Lord, Lunatic” trilemma as he has done elsewhere, like with the Professor defending Lucy Pevensie’s integrity against her siblings’ accusations in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe), Orual set out on a second trip to visit Psyche, but this time she had prepared an oil lamp and a dagger—the oil lamp to expose Psyche’s fraudulent (or monstrous) lover, and the dagger to coerce Psyche to betray her husband thus. Upon confronting Psyche a second time, Orual reveals that her jealous love for her sister has driven her to this precipice: Orual ran the dagger through her own arm and threatened further self-harm to the point of taking her own life if Psyche would not capitulate to appease Orual’s demands about unmasking her treacherous husband. Heart-broken, Psyche took the lamp to her bedroom and beheld her beloved’s glorious face. She is caught and exiled, and the god speaks to Orual: “You, woman, will know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche” (197).

Orual went on to live the rest of her life in fear and hatred for the god of the Grey Mountain, whom she contended had ruined and foiled her life by taking Psyche away from her. For months stretching into years, Orual waited for the shoe of the gods’ judgment to drop, but it seemingly never came. For a long while, Orual was haunted by the whisper of Psyche’s unending weeping, but this too faded. The King of Glome died shortly after in a freak accident following a hunting trip, and Orual shows herself to be a competent and successful queen.

Having been trained by the Fox in Greek and philosophy and the ways of the world, Orual takes on the mantle of Queen with ease, even to the point of choosing to perpetually wear her veil to hide her hideous face. By doing this, she raised a barrier between herself and the rest of the world, and she lived her life almost entirely under the guise of the Queen, and not at all as Orual. The Queen learned to sword-fight, reformed the slavery in her kingdom, provided better irrigation methods, and expanded trade with Greece especially with the intent to foster better literacy among her people. But for all this, she felt hollow, haunted by the fact that her sister was doomed to wander desolate places because of her own meddling jealousy. At the end of her life, Orual put her complaint to paper: “They [the gods] gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me…Why must holy places be dark places?” (283-284). She suspected the gods did not respond satisfactorily (or at all) to her complaint because “they have no answer,” which are the last four words with which Orual concludes the first book, namely her formalized legal complaint against the gods (284). However, in the second book Orual would indeed receive an answer from the gods which subsequently caused her to reconsider her whole complaint (and her whole life). With Orual, we will consider this answer (in a subsequent article).

©Joseph Pollard. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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    Joseph Pollard came to Christ through God’s ordinary means of grace as a covenant child in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, CA; he now lives in Phoenix, AZ with his beloved wife and sons. Joseph enjoys fostering fellowship over food, games, songs, and stories.

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