Weeping Stone 3 Ryan Vaarsi/Flickr
I first read what C.S. Lewis regarded as his greatest work only recently, and it intrigued me so much that I immediately read it all over again so that I could absorb the different layers in the story more completely. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is an extraordinary tale, a rewriting of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister Orual. It was written in 1956 and dedicated to his wife Joy Davidman, and enjoyed acclaim from the literary community, particularly from Lewis’ great friend J.R.R. Tolkien.
Lewis wrote of his work that
“this re-interpretation of an old story has lived in the author’s mind…ever since he was an undergraduate. That way, he could be said to have worked at it most of his life. Recently, what seemed to be the right form presented itself and themes suddenly interlocked: the straight tale of barbarism, the mind of an ugly woman, dark idolatry and pale enlightenment at war with each other and with vision, and the havoc which a vocation, or even a faith, works on human life.”
Set in the kingdom of Glome, Orual is the eldest daughter of King Trom and realises at an early age that she is ugly. She has a younger sister, Redival, and an even younger step-sister, Psyche, whose mother died in childbirth. From the very beginning Psyche is gifted with unworldly beauty, and is soon revered as a goddess for her loveliness and goodness. Orual, far from being jealous of Psyche’s beauty, loves her more than anyone else in the world, more even than their Greek tutor named “The Fox” who brings her up to distrust fables and poetry as lies, in favour of an excessively rational view of the world.
When a curse falls on Glome, the priest of Ungit (Glome’s name for Aphrodite) claims that a victim must be sacrificed for the people, and Psyche is the one claimed by the goddess. She is taken up to the sacred mountain and left to the mysterious Shadowbeast. The heartbroken Orual later goes to bury her remains, but is amazed to find her alive and happier than she has ever seen her. Psyche claims to be the bride of the god, living in a magnificent palace and enjoying the delights of love. However Orual only has a fleeting vision of the palace and refuses to believe in the god’s existence. She extracts a promise that Psyche should disobey the god and look upon his face to see him for the monster that he is. Psyche, torn between her two loves, makes the promise and as a result is driven into exile.
On the very first page, Orual sets out her aim in telling her story: “I will accuse the gods”. Her tale is her self-justification, showing her love for Psyche and the terrible way in which the gods have destroyed that love. Everything to do with the divine is shrouded in horror and mystery: Ungit is presented notHer tale is her self-justification, showing her love for Psyche and the terrible way in which the gods have destroyed that love as the lovely Aphrodite who drives mortal men to madness, but as a lumpish, faceless, hideous being, compared to a spider at the centre of her web, glutted with the blood of her prey: “A face such as you might see in a loaf, swollen, brooding, infinitely female.” Her house is stained with the blood of countless sacrifices, human and animal; devouring the children that come from her womb. The fear she inspires contrasts with the Fox’s persistent rationalism: “only lies of poets, lies of poets, child.”
Whereas in the original tale in the Metamorphoses, Orual acts out of hatred and jealousy for Psyche’s happiness, here she acts out of a very different kind of jealousy. Her love for Psyche admits no other, and she cannot bear that Psyche is happy in a life that no longer includes her. She also makes a deliberate choice not to see the palace of the god—her blindness symbolises her wilful ignorance, rejection even, of the divine mysteries, whereas Psyche is her antithesis, calmly accepting the god’s commands with complete faith in his love for her. After her brief vision of the palace, Orual sets out what lies at the heart of her complaint against the gods: their trickery, their obliqueness, the way in which they toy with mortals.
“That moment when I either saw or thought I saw the House—does it tell against the gods or against me? Would they (if they answered) make it a part of their defence? —say it was a sign, a hint, beckoning me to answer the riddle one way rather than the other? I’ll not grant them that.”
This blindness brings about Psyche’s ruin and the end of Orual herself—she sheds the identity of the ugly daughter of Trom, veiling herself in the mantle of queenship and refusing to present a bare face to the world from then on. However the god’s last words—“You also will be Psyche” haunt her, and their meaning—and the meaning of the book’s title—only become clear in the final pages. Her veil, while allowing her to become a great and valiant queen with a siren’s voice who inspires awe and love in her people, buries her true self along with the memories of her crime and the god’s prophesy. Only in the final days of her life does she have a chance to speak to the gods directly, bare faced, her rage at their injustice finally unleashed. This is the climax of the story, where the book’s title is explained: “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer…How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” The scene is biblical in the way she takes to task the gods—it echoes the passage in the Book of Job where he demands an answer from the Lord:
“…I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
I will say to God, Do not condemn me;
Let me know why thou dost contend against me.”
Only then, having stood face to face with the gods, and having received judgement in turn, can Orual understand the redemptive nature of her life’s suffering. Only then can she achieve her destiny and be reunited with Psyche—and, as the god had promised, become Psyche herself.
Lewis’ genius lies in using the poetic language of myth and weaving into it a universal story: that of an ugly, flawed fallen human being who commits a great fault, out of a mistaken understanding of love, and then redeems herself through a lifetime of suffering Only then, having stood face to face with the gods, and having received judgement in turn, can Orual understand the redemptive nature of her life’s sufferingto become a creature entirely beautiful and divine. Many readers will recognise in this tale Lewis’ understanding of religion and the grace of redemption. Others will be fascinated by the numerous edifices that Orual and the Fox create to justify their disbelief and resentment of the gods. Many readers will marvel at the complexities of the heroine’s character and the way in which she reinvents herself as a woman and a queen, despite not having been blessed with any of the graces of femininity. Whatever chord this story strikes with the reader, it is easy to see why C.S. Lewis regarded it as his best, and most personal, work.