In his last published work before he died, Lewis explores themes of suffering, human relationship, and man’s quest for God. Till We Have Faces retells the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, but it also offers telling commentary on very contemporary dangers like hiding ourselves behind the veil of social media.
The story revolves around Princess Orual. She grows up in the kingdom of Glome, where everyone around her tells her how ugly she is. Because she has never known anything else, she sees herself as hideous and unworthy of true love. By contrast, her sister Psyche is a great beauty, often compared to one of the gods. After a series of misfortunes plague the kingdom, an innocent Psyche is given up as a propitiating sacrifice. Afterwards, Orual goes to the mountain (the seat of the gods in this story) in order to recover her sister’s body.
Instead she finds Psyche not only alive, but married to the god of the mountain. The sisters are eventually separated, however, and Orual never sees Psyche again.
The Shroud of the Queen
Orual eventually takes to wearing a veil as Queen, hiding her face from the world, for she sees nothing worth showing. This extends beyond the physical into Orual’s very soul. She tells us, “The Queen of Glome had more and more part in me and Orual less and less. I locked Orual up or laid her asleep as best I could somewhere deep inside me… the thing I carried in me grew slowly smaller and less alive.”
The Queen of Glome becomes mighty in her time, defeating opponents, bringing prosperity, and securing peace for Glome, but she remains unsatisfied. She longs for her sister Psyche, even for her beauty and goodness. As time passes, Orual slowly disappears until nothing is left but the Queen of Glome. Orual has nothing to offer the world, for who could learn to love her? The face of Orual must be replaced by the veil of the Queen.
At the end of the book, Orual finally places herself before the gods, accusing them of taking Pysche from her, and Orual is revealed to herself by her very plea. The god who took Psyche for his bride comes down and shows Orual that she too is Pysche: she too is beautiful, and the veil falls from her face. “Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water… both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.”
It takes the entire tale for Orual to have her veil removed, for her to see herself as she truly is, beautiful beyond all imagining. It’s not until she sees herself that she is able to admit, with a note evocative of Augustine’s Confessions:
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.
Orual’s incapability for right relationship with others stems from her inability to love herself. Covered with the shroud of the Queen, she is great and terrible. She commands the friendship and love of others, but she never sees herself as beautiful. As a result, she veils her face, seeking to hide herself. Sometimes a look in the mirror can indeed be terrifying.
A Husk of Ourselves
If we wish to be truly human, we need to see our own face, our self as gift in the miracle of Creation. This act must become a priority for our lives. It’s only by removing the veil that we can have real relationships with other people. It’s only till we have faces that we can come to see the answer found in the face of the Beloved. Otherwise, we present a husk of ourselves, forcing our wonderful, beautiful self into something we are not, seeing the world as if through a veil. What a tragedy to never realize that you are beautiful beyond all imagining.
What if we saw ourselves as Orual eventually sees herself in the water—as another Psyche, beautiful beyond all imagining? Herein is the question that Lewis asks throughout his writings: what does it mean to be a Christian, to be in a relationship with Jesus Christ? Think of Lucy from Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, whom Aslan calls “great heart.” If Christ is real, and the Christian faith is not a lie, then it must demand something from those who profess it as true. We cannot shine until we have faces, until we see ourselves as creations of love, not fear.
Orual’s admittance of her own failing provides the key here. She spends her life hidden behind a veil, fearful of being seen for who she really was, because who would love her then? So too, we often hide behind the veil of social media. Why have friends when virtual ones will do? Orual’s life is one lived in fear and hatred of the god of the mountain who has taken away her sister Psyche. This hatred stems from her own inability to see herself as gift. If, as for Lewis, the life of a Christian means relationship with Christ, this life is predicated on the reality that such a relationship is at its very heart a gift. It is a gift, freely given to be sure, but nonetheless a gift.
The joy of the Christian is living in the full knowledge of being known and loved, knowing that an all-loving God already awaits us, and before Him all questions die away. Till We Have Faces reminds us that our identity as children of God bestows beauty upon us, which no veil ought to hide. Practically, the first thing to do when you awake is to give thanks for this gift, instead of browsing the latest IG feed.
After that, a group reading of Lewis’s novel might be in order. Then, as you begin to remove your own veil, you can help your friends to remove theirs.