Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis
This is Lewis’s retelling of the myth about Psyche and Cupid. It is told from the perspective of Orual (I still do not know how to properly pronounce her name). Orual is the King’s eldest daughter. She is not pretty, and the King is not happy that he keeps siring girls. He wants a son. Some of the girls get sacrificed to the god, Ungit, who lives outside the city, on The Grey Mountain. In Greek, Ungit is called Aphrodite.
The King of Glome has 3 daughters: Orual, Redival, and Psyche. Orual and Redival are true sisters. During the births of Redival and Psyche, their respective mothers died. Immediately after Psyche’s birth, she is identified as the most beautiful girl in the land. She is compared to Helen and Aphrodite. Even as a young girl, Psyche’s beauty was evident. On the other hand, Orual is extraordinarily ugly and Redival is a whore.
This book is an easy read, and it’s easy to get engulfed in Orual’s world. Lewis is a fantastic author. It only took me 2 days to read this novel.
The city of Glome was experiencing many unfortunate events. There was a plague on the city. Crops were dying and there was famine. There was also pestilence and drought, and a war threatened the King in the near future. Then, there were lions, which had never been spotted near the city until most recently. And lastly, the King was barren from having a son. All of these misfortunes were brought to the King’s attention by Ungit’s Priest. Glome was being attacked by the gods.
The Priest tells the King that there is an Accursed person, and to save the city, the Accursed must be offered as a sacrifice to Ungit. The Priest explains that the sacrifice is not simply a killing. It is a marriage. The god wants to devour the Accursed. The Accursed is both the evil one, but also the most beautiful one. The Accursed must be devoured by the beast. But the Accursed is also married to a god. Devour and marriage are really the same thing. In the marriage union, the two individuals devour each other. This is an idea that I’ve seen many times before. The King and Orual do not understand the Priest’s meanings. But when Psyche is named as the Accursed who must be offered as sacrifice, the King does not hesitate to issue the death order. Psyche will be tied to the tree and offered to Ungit.
Orual is most upset. She weeps bitterly. In fact, Orual is significantly more upset than Psyche. During a conversation between the two sisters, Psyche accepts her death. She says that somehow this is what she always wanted. She feels like the Grey Mountain and the gods have called her. In a way, she is excited. She is not troubled like Orual.
The sacrifice of Psyche passes. Orual is sick with grief for several days afterward. When she recovers, she determines to go to the Holy Tree and collect Psyche’s bones and pay them honor by burning them. Thus, Psyche and one of the guards, Bardia, take a trip up the Grey Mountain and to the tree. When they arrive, Psyche’s shackles are still locked to the tree, but no bones are present. What happened? This is strange. No animal would consume the bones.
At this point in the story (about 1/3 through), I am wondering what is the purpose of this story? Why was Lewis consumed by the myth of Psyche and Cupid? What is the story’s significance? I suppose that I will need to keep reading to answer these questions. I’m also wondering about the Grey Mountain and the Holy Tree that Psyche was sacrificed on. What is the significance of these objects? Based on what I know about Lewis, these objects have some meaning. But, what is it? Christ was sacrificed on a cross, much like the Holy Tree in this story. But this is a Greek story, so it existed before Jesus. Also, there is the idea that mountains are the dwelling places of gods. The Grey Mountain is Ungit’s mountain. The sacrifice of Psyche at the Holy Tree occurs at the top of the mountain, which is nearest to God. The Greek gods live on Mount Olympus. Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God and receive the Commandments. Why is God at the top of the mountain? Why do we associate divinity with mountain tops? There’s a lot here that I’m not going to explore right now.
I finished “Part 1,” and now is a good time to collect my thoughts. After Orual and Bardia reach Psyche’s Holy Tree, they see Psyche. She is alive and well. Psyche invites her sister to cross the creek so that they can speak. Psyche tells us that she is married to a god, and that it is wonderful. She belongs to the god, and he pleases her. She lives in a great palace, with the finest wines and decorations. However, Orual cannot see the palace, and it appears that Psyche is disillusioned. Orual is frustrated that her sister cannot see the forest that is plainly in front of her. When Psyche tells Orual that she cannot see her lover’s face, because the god restricts it, Orual is driven into a rage. Orual believes that her sister is mentally deranged, unable to see reality, and that some bandit man in the forest is taking advantage of her. Orual also notices that her sister looks more beautiful and is physically stronger than ever.
Unable to understand her sister’s words, unwilling to accept the truth of them, and unable to recognize Psyche’s marriage to a god, Orual determines to bring Psyche (Istra) back to Glome. Orual revisits Psyche, and after she is unable to speak sensibly with Psyche, Orual states that Psyche must light a lamp that night and view her lovers’ faces. Psyche is resistant to Orual’s request, but when Orual cuts herself, Psyche concedes. Psyche does not understand the type of love that Orual is offering. Orual’s love is unlike the love of her husband.
To honor Orual’s request, Psyche lights the lamp that night. Consequently, the god rages and a massive storm engulfs the mountain. It is terrible. In the midst of the storm, the god reveals himself as a shadow to Orual, curses Psyche to wander the earth, and then curses Orual to be like her sister. At this moment, Orual recognizes the god’s existence, and she feels awful for condemning Psyche to a life of wandering and begging. Orual is greatly pained.
After this event on the mountain, Orual learns to fight with swords, the King dies, Orual becomes Queen, Orual beats a man in a dual, and the Queen leads Glome into prosperity. Orual ceases to exist; she is replaced by the Queen. For years, Orual is troubled by the events of her sister. Orual refuses to recognize the gods as real and only offers the required sacrifices to Ungit. The Queen sometimes hears cries outside and dreams that these are the tears of Psyche. The Queen refuses to love again, only ever having loved Psyche. Again there is a re-occurring theme that love is the most powerful force in the world. In Orual’s situation, love broke her heart, and the heart break was so painful that she refused to love again for the remainder of her life. Also, it is worth mentioning that Orual never reveals her face. She always covers her face with veil or a mask. The people of Glome do not know her ugliness.
During one of her travels as Queen, Orual wanders into a god’s palace. She asks the priest what god this temple is dedicated to. The priest responds, “Istra.” Then the priest proceeds to tell the Queen about the story of Istra (known as Psyche to us), and the Queen realizes that this is her sister’s temple. The Queen is angered that the priest’s tale is not wholly accurate. It is evident that the gods have manipulated Psyche’s story about ascension to goddess. The Queen becomes Orual again. She is flooded with thoughts about Psyche, and her love for Psyche, and she is deeply angry at the gods. This is the point where Orual decides to write down her story, and express her case against the gods.
Orual writes this book that I am now reading as a charge against the gods. The gods gave her only one love, Psyche, and then they took that love away. Furthermore, the gods refused to give Orual a clear answer as to whether Psyche was blissfully married or shamefully wandering the earth. The gods refuse to give Orual a clear answer, and they distort the true story of Psyche. Throughout her whole life, Orual tried to hide from the gods and forget her heart break. But she realizes now that the gods were only playing a game of cat-and-mouse, a game of blind-man’s buff, and that the was merely being teased, and could never escape the gods. Now, she has been caught. Orual is frustrated that he gods play with humans in this way. The gods refuse to allow humans to simply live in ignorance, but they also refuse to clearly reveal themselves. Either of those options would be better than the hide-and-seek, the hints, and mysteries, that the gods fill our lives with. Frustration. Anger. Confusion. Can’t we all relate the Orual? We ask for answers from God, and then we become annoyed when God gives no clear answer. We get angry at God, and we question his existence and his goodness, yet somehow we know He’s real and greater than ourselves. We wish that he would either clearly reveal himself to us or simply leave us alone.
Un-freaking-believable! The ending to this book. I was eager to hear Orual’s last words, and then BAM she dies. Her last words are smeared in blood, and we will never know what she had to say. I’m consumed by emotion! What emotion it is, I’m not sure. Frustrated, because I wanted to know Orual’s conclusions about the gods. Awed, because of how well-crafted the ending to this story is. Obviously, Lewis was a tremendous author. Anybody who can draw a reader into the book like that and evoke intense emotion is just talented. I feel like I was beginning to understand something important about the gods, and then was stripped of that understanding by Orual’s death. But maybe that’s the purpose? Maybe we are not supposed to understand the functions and motives of gods? If that is Lewis’s point, then it is tremendously well done. I am impressed! From the ending alone, I would consider this one of my all-time favorite books. In summary, Orual finishes telling her tale about her visit with the gods. Then, she wakes up and finds her body incredibly weak. She begins to explain how she originally thought that the gods “have no answer” against her charges, but she knows now why the gods provide “no answer.” She knows why! She says that for so long she hated God. She is about to explain the “why” and explain her new feelings about God, but this is when she dies. We do not learn why the gods provide no answers .We do not get any of Orual’s conclusions from her trip to the gods’ courtroom.
The tale of Psyche and Cupid was originally published in the Greek poem, “Metamorphoses,” which I read a long time ago. Lewis altered the myth to suit his own interpretation of what felt appropriate. Sort of like how Milton reworked a remarkable story from the Bible, and made it mare real and engaging, Lewis re-works a classic tale from Greek mythology to make it more enjoyable. I see a theme here. “Paradise Lost” was my all-time favorite book, and “Till We Have Faces” is likely my second favorite. I enjoy the re-telling of these religious stories. Right now, I just want to bask in the wave of emotions that I experienced from that ending. That feeling of being blown away, completely absorbed to unexpected twist, is not a feeling that I get very often. I suppose it is the same feeling that people get from a great movie. And, I doubt that if I were to read this book a second time, that I would experience the same emotions. The emotion that I felt can only be experienced once, from something entirely unexpected. And for any future readings, I will always know what the ending is. It will never again be a secret.
“How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” This is Orual’s quote, which the book is titled from. Why do the gods not answer us? It is because we do not know how to clearly articulate ourselves. We do not know the words to properly shape our thoughts and feelings. Strong emotions, such as the heart break experienced by Orual, enable us to articulate our true feelings. Only when we can truly put our feelings into words, and those words accurately reflect our thoughts, only then will the gods listen to us. Why should the gods listen if we can do nothing more than babble? What’s the conclusion? The conclusion is that we should learn how to articulate our emotions. Learn to speak and use words. But speaking truthfully is not easy. Strong emotional reactions help us find the right words. Orual experiences heart break from a lost love, and as a result, she finds the words to give her a face and confront the gods. During her confrontation with the gods, Orual gets an answer. She actually gets an answer from the gods! Unfortunately for the reader, Orual dies before she can share her conclusion. The point is that the gods will answer us if we truthfully express ourselves and our desires.