In the midst of a dream, Orual’s doubts are finally answered by the gods. Once Psyche gives her the gift of beauty, and the God of the mountain appears and speaks to her, her ugliness is washed away. It takes all of Orual’s life to come to this point of faith and cleansing, and now she can love herself and be loved by God fully.

Coming to Christ is no panacea, but if C.S. Lewis were to tell us a tale of how pain and doubt were inevitable and unavoidable in a life of belief in God, who would willingly listen? It’s one thing to share personal experience or to preach a lesson, but in fiction, an author and his audience might just be left with a moralizing and probably unlikeable character instead.

Most fiction features at least one appealing character—the one you cheer for, stumble with, return to. Therein lies one of the trickiest elements in Till We Have Faces. Perhaps one of the most exasperating characters of all of Lewis’s novels, Orual is an unlikely blend for a central character. At the beginning of the tale, she is practically an orphaned girl without love or looks, and so we naturally pity her. By the time Psyche is born, it seems that Orual now has a purpose in life. In spite of her abusive father, she can now care for Psyche and be loved in return by Psyche and the Fox.

Yet the same thing that brings joy to Orual also brings the most pain, and we begin to dislike Orual as she denies the truth of Psyche’s sincere faith and even the god who revealed himself to her. Orual’s long-term obstinacy and manipulation is offensive to us. We are frustrated by her resistance. But does this make her a lesser character?

Gwyneth Hood asks us to view her as an admirable heroine. She “strives to change for the better the ugly and undesirable situation around her.”[1] And there are moments of hope. When she ascends the mountain with Bardia, her heart delights in the beauty that surrounds her. In spite of the errand of grief, her heart is responsive. This is not just a sensitivity to nature, but a means by which God can speak to her.

As her audience, we too hope that she might know God. Hope might also spur her to pray and ask the gods for their help after her first visit to the Grey Mountain. Yet Orual hears and feels nothing after hours of prayer. When we look at her in those moments, we can see that she is likely manipulating her religion. Orual wants things her way because she only understands how to do things, to make things happen, in order to get something else. Her prayers are based on herself, not on a sincere relationship with God.

She selfishly demands an answer, and it must come in the way she chooses. Orual’s wrestling is paralleled in James 1:6-8 (ESV):

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness. With doubt in the way, Orual cannot see or hear the gods. And yet she continues to try.

As most of us do then, if we cannot hear God, we blame Him. Orual declares, “The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.” This same fatalism is echoed in James 1:13-15 (ESV):

Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

As James writes, Orual is motivated by her desire. Not one of us is helped by blaming God. Yet surely we cannot be perfectly wrong, and neither can Orual. Orual’s domineering selfishness is key, and Ansit seems to be the only one to recognize it fully: “You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters’.” Orual is angered and repulsed by this, but she can see it is true. Whether her obsessive love for Psyche or her controlling love for Bardia, Orual’s idea of love is wholly tainted. It brings death to all.

And so, how can we like a character who has damaged so many, including herself? This is a distinctive point of Lewis’s tale. We don’t have to like Orual or agree with her or even hope for her, but we do need to see ourselves in her. Lewis wrote to his friend Clyde Kilby that Orual was “an instance, a ‘case,’ of human affection in its natural condition: true, tender, suffering, but in the long run, tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession.”[2] If Orual is an instance in Lewis’s words, then we are liable. If we read this myth as story only, then we have lost its moral lesson and the pending redemption. “It is largely through the redemption of Orual that Lewis explores the depth and complexity of the three natural human loves (storge, philia, and eros) and the salvation possible even for those who, like Orual, ‘know not what they do.’”[3]

At the end of her reign, Orual finally realizes the futility of hiding from herself, “I did and I did and I did, and what does it matter that I did?” She has no concept of what trust or rest is. She has struggled with this from the beginning. Just as Psyche exemplifies a working faith, Orual finds it hard to trust. On her first visit to the mountain, Orual declares she almost came to a full belief. The “almost” is conscious doubt. She knows Psyche is certain, and she knows she, Orual, is not. It is a sickening feeling, and Orual is filled with both horror and grief at the gulf between them, immediately blaming the gods, instead of herself. Lewis wrote to Katherine Farrer that this is “the story of every nice, affectionate agnostic whose dearest one suddenly ‘gets religion’, or even every luke-warm Christian whose dearest gets a Vocation.”[4] The divide is clear.

Moreover, when Orual returns to the mountain the second time determined to forcibly remove Psyche, she cannot see Psyche’s perspective nor can she truly see Psyche’s joy. Though Orual is certain she is right, she is blind. I John 2:8-11 says this is because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. Here, John reveals what Orual cannot know of herself yet—that she “hates” Psyche. This hatred incites her blindness, and by novel’s end, Orual herself confesses to Psyche that she has always been a “craver,” loving her only “selfishly.”

As Part II begins, Orual tells us that the gods began their surgery and reopened her wounds. Her blindness cannot remain. “Before the end, she perceives that no lasting happiness will reach her until her own ugly and undesirable nature is transformed.”[5] This surgery is an image of pain, but it’s also an image of rescue. The gods (God) will not allow her to hide behind the guise of “Queen.” All of Orual must be seen.

Ansit is the first to recognize that Orual both loves and devours just as Ungit does in the Great Sacrifice. In Orual’s dream and journey deep into the earth without her veil, Orual comes to understand who she is, the very thing she has never understood—Ungit.

Before the dream, Arnom has just told Orual that Ungit was “the earth, the womb and mother of all living things.” And here Orual is, deep within the earth, seeing the reflection of Ungit in the mirror. Ungit is symbolic of our own ugliness, our selfishness, our sinfulness, not just Orual’s. Though she wakes immediately, Orual’s first reaction is to try to kill herself because she knows she cannot “fix” her ugliness. Little does she know that her rescue has begun.

In the midst of her final dream, Orual is answered by the gods, for now she knows without riddle they have always been there. Once Psyche gives her the gift of beauty, and the God of the mountain appears and speaks to her, her ugliness is washed away. Orual had not been able to see until the end that love, the real love of Charity, reveals truth incessantly, so that we can be like God. Yes, it takes all of Orual’s life to come to this point, and even then, it is in a dream, yet now she can love herself and be loved by God fully. I John 3:2 says, Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

This essay is an excerpt from Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion, 2nd edition.

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Notes:

[1] Gwenyth Hood, “Heroic Orual and the Tasks of Psyche,” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature 27, no.3 (2009): 44.

[2] C.S. Lewis to Clyde S. Kilby, February 10, 1957, in Walter Hooper. C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996) 253.

[3] Nancy Enright. “C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and the Transformation of Love.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 14, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 97.

[4] C.S. Lewis to Katherine Farrer, April 2, 1955, in Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide, 249.

[5] Ibid.

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