In “Till We Have Faces,” the story of Orual and Psyche which Lewis weaves is so powerful because it presents us with the hope that even the greatest cruelty perpetrated by selfish love can be forgiven by true love.
Picture the scene, cliché as it is: A young teenager’s parents have just refused her permission to go with friends to a concert this Friday. As she reels at the blow to her social life, the words bubble up: “You don’t really love me!” She says this only because she knows that her parents do love her and that it will hurt them to hear these painful words. The only lever she has to persuade her parents is their love for her. Rare indeed is the person who has not treated love so poorly.
In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In doing so, he depicts a life centered on one such abuse of love that is far more extreme than that of the teenager and her parents. The first part of the book shows the sisters Orual and Psyche growing up together, along with their mentor the Fox. Their childhood was filled with great love, but eventually tragedy strikes. Orual is the older sister and so ugly that she spends most of the book with her face veiled. Psyche, the younger sister, is so beautiful that Cupid himself desires her for his bride. The one rule that Cupid gives Psyche is that she not look upon his face. He comes to her only in darkness. Orual, who has been like a mother to Psyche, cannot believe that it is actually Cupid to whom Psyche has joined herself. Orual, therefore, uses the threat of suicide to force Psyche to sneak in a lamp and look upon her partner’s face to prove he is not deceiving her. Psyche knows how wrong this is that she is “betraying the best of lovers,” but she does it out of love for her sister. As a result, Psyche is cursed to wander the earth and complete the tasks set for her by Aphrodite, Cupid’s jealous mother. Not only is Psyche’s happiness ruined, but Orual and Psyche are separated. Orual must learn to live with what she has done.
How many of us live with this regret, that we have hurt the ones we love most by playing on their love? Maybe for some of us, it is even to the extent that “all my life had been but a hiding and staunching of the wound.” We gained no benefit from the loss we caused except a wound for ourselves. Our lives, like Orual’s, go on, “I did and I did and I did—and what does it matter what I did?” Through the story of Orual, Lewis lays out the most extreme case of this never-healing injury. Still, we can all see in her veiled face something of the secret regrets onto which we hold. These are the regrets that we cling to because they are all that remain of our selfish, destructive love.
It takes a long time for us to outgrow the selfish love we have as children which is “one part love… five parts anger, and seven parts pride.” This is the sort of love “that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love.” As long as we think our love is purer than it actually is, we must cast the blame for the pain we cause elsewhere. Hence Orual proclaims on the first page, “I will accuse the gods.” By the end of the tale, Lewis shows that charging others with our own fault only reveals the guilt that haunts us.
What we really want to know is how can such a wound be healed? Unfortunately, the “how” is never explicitly revealed. The ending of the tale is couched in dreams and visions. It does not seem that Psyche and Orual ever meet again in the flesh. What is made clear is that the wounds can be healed. Even though we cannot heal this sort of wound on our own, this should not leave us without hope. The story which Lewis weaves is so powerful because it presents us with the hope that even the greatest cruelty perpetrated by selfish love can be forgiven by true love. Yet the how of it remains shrouded in mystery. To uncover more of that mystery, Lewis would point us to another book: “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?”
Republished with gracious permission from Dominicana (June 2020).
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The featured image is Psyche’s Sisters Giving her a Lamp and a Dagger (1697) by Luca Giordano (1634-1705) and is in the public domain, courtesy of WikiArt.