Summary of Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis by Fr. Richard Conlin

C.S. Lewis’ Retelling of Cupid and Psyche

  • Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’ modern retelling of the classic myth of Cupid & Psyche from the Latin work, Metamorphoses, written by Lucius Apuleius Platonicus in the 2nd century.
  • By making Psyche’s palace invisible to Orual, C.S. Lewis forces a deeper examination of Orual’s motives and thereby allows strong Christian themes to shine forth.

Favourite Symbol: The Veil

At a young age, Orual was forced by her father to wear a veil to his wedding to hide her ugliness. Later in the novel, after her beloved Psyche’s exile, Orual decides to permanently don a veil.

  • On an exterior level – the veil hides Orual’s physical defects (her ugliness & emotions). Orual comes to enjoy this mysterious aspect of her appearance – giving her a sense of power as she leaves behind the old Orual and takes on the new persona as the Queen.
  • On an interior level – the veil hides Orual’s spiritual defects (impurity of motive & impact her actions have on others). Interiorly, Orual undergoes a transformation into the also-veiled Ungit. Although she tries to leave the old Orual behind, she emerges as the devouring Ungit. In a dream one day, when her father removes her veil, Orual discovers in the mirror that she has the face of Ungit, she realizes that she too has devoured her lovers for her own selfish gain.

Favourite Theme: Self-Understanding

  • Orual, the narrator of the novel, understands at a young age by her father that she is ugly – too ugly to ever get married. Orual is unloved and feels unlovable. To compensate, Orual is determined to secure the love of others. This mad quest blinds her to the fact that her love is actually a destructive force that devours the 3 loves of her life: (1) Psyche (half-sister of Orual & epitome of perfection both morally & physically – a Christ figure in the novel) – forcing Psyche, by threat of murder & suicide, to betray her divine husband and be subsequently banished into exile; (2) the Fox (Greek slave and teacher of the princesses of Glome) – selfishly embracing the Fox’s decision not to return home to Greece; (3) Bardia (captain of palace guard & advisor of Queen Orual) – working him to death on the battlefield & in the council room (and away from his family). Orual’s jealous and possessive love also blinds her to recognizing the reciprocal love her 3 lovers show her.
  • Although Orual at first thinks that she has a pure love for those she loves, she realizes in a dream the full truth – that she is like Ungit because she too consume human lives through her jealous & possessive love. Orual despises this true vision of herself. Orual wants to die but can’t commit suicide because the gods say she must “die before she dies.” This is a Christian point of leaving the old self behind. In order to do so, you must first recognize the old self for what it is.
  • When Orual finally reads the complaint against the gods in court, Orual reads a different script in a strange voice, which is the plain-truth version – with all hidden motives revealed – in her true voice. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Orual’s complaint against the gods is ultimately shown for what it really is, Orual’s jealous that she can never compete with them for the love of her sister, Psyche. Providentially, once Orual sees herself for who she really is, she realizes that if true justice were to be done, she would have to be punished, not the gods. Instead of justice, Orual receives mercy.
  • Orual’s journey of genuine self-understanding is simultaneously a journey of discovering God. Orual ultimately realizes that the gods cannot “meet us face to face till we have faces” (294), implying that the having a face includes being conscious of one’s entire self, both good and bad and understanding one’s motives and the results of one’s actions. Until then, the gods will remain silent, unwilling to waste time trying to make mortals understand what they’re willfully blind to.

Favourite Quotes

“And when the Brute is Ungit it lies with the man, and when it is her son it lies with the woman. And either way there is a devouring… many different things are said… many sacred stories… many great mysteries. Some say the loving and the devouring are all the same thing. For in sacred language we say that a woman who lies with a man devours the man.” (Part 1 Chapter 5).

  • Although the Priest speaks these illogical words in an attempt to explain how the gods will accept Psyche as the sacrifice in the Great Offering, the profound point is still made that jealous love is a devouring action – both for Ungit and for Orual – possessive love devours the beloved.

“I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them.”

  • The Priest explains that human logic doesn’t apply to the gods because the gods deal only in mystery and contradiction. At the end of the novel, Orual finally discovers this truth that we are totally blind to the mysterious workings of the gods.

“Do not do it,” said the god. “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after.” “Lord, I am Ungit.” But there was no answer. (Part 2. Chapter 2).

  • In this quote, a god tells Orual, on the verge of suicide after realizing that she has become Ungit, that she can’t rid herself of Ungit through death. Instead, Orual must rid herself of the cruel and jealous qualities of Ungit first.

“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered…. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (Part 2. Chapter 4).

  • Once Orual read out the truth of her motivations to write a complaint against the gods, she realizes that she actually has no accusation to make, but rather than she is to blame for everything that happened. Humans, and not the gods, are the ones to blame for the gods’ silence. For the gods see humans fully as they are and to speak to them when they are unwilling to admit their faults, is useless.

“I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might -” (Part 2 Chapter 4, 351)

  • Orual’s final words before she died. A profound transformation has taken place in Orual’s view of the gods. Face to face with God – no questions are needed.

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