In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis uses the myth of Cupid and Psyche as a vehicle to explore love in its many forms. The story takes place in Glome, a pre-Christian, polytheistic culture ruled by a tyrannical king who fathers three daughters. The narrative unfolds in the first-person point of view of Orual, his eldest daughter and Psyche’s sister.
Orual is castigated because of her ugly face. Her ugliness shocks all who see her, so she veils her face to diminish the impact of her defining feature. Psyche, on the other hand, is renowned for her sublime beauty and generosity of spirit. Orual assumes the role of her protective guardian, showering her with love. But this love is not unconditional. It is selfish, self-serving, and destructive. When Psyche is selected as the sacrificial bride to the Brute (Cupid), Orual is convinced she has been devoured by the Brute and embarks on a journey to bury Psyche’s remains. She finds Psyche is not only alive but is thriving and happy as the bride of the god. Psyche reveals the god comes to her only at night, and she is not permitted to see his face. And this is where Orual’s envy and possessiveness become paramount. Consumed by jealousy and anger at Psyche’s estrangement from her, Orual destroys Psyche’s happiness, deluding herself into believing she is doing it for Psyche’s own good.
Orual displays the very human trait of conceptualizing events and relationships only in terms of how they impact her. She cannot see beyond herself and lashes out at any hint of independence from people she cares about. She perceives herself as a victim, little realizing she has victimized others. As an aging queen, she gradually recognizes the possessive and destructive nature of her love, her role in extinguishing Psyche’s happiness and in consuming the lives and activities of those around her.
Orual grapples with questions concerning the nature of the divine and the concept of love for the divine. Unlike Psyche, she is incapable of loving the divine without seeing it. She questions the existence of the gods, the nature of divine justice, and dismisses faith as mere superstition. She cannot “see” what Psyche sees and is consumed with resentment because Psyche has entered a different realm of existence as a result of her love for the divine.
Through his characters, Lewis explores the nature of divine justice, love for the divine, and faith in a supreme being. He also probes the relationship between beauty and love and the forms of love that can exist between two people, ranging from that which is selfish, possessive, and destructive to a selfless love capable of self-sacrifice to ensure the happiness of the beloved.
At its most basic level, this is a story of Orual’s gradual transformation from a character struggling with her identity as an ugly girl, plagued with doubts about the existence of the gods and the nature of divine justice to one who gains self-acceptance and who finds redemption by embracing spirituality and faith in the divine. It is a testament to Lewis’ skill as a writer that he opens this complex, multi-layered novel to a variety of metaphorical interpretations, including the possibility of reading it as an allegory for Christian theology, while simultaneously depicting diverse characters who are vivid and life-like in their expression of human emotions and motivations.