Possessive Love

A central idea explored in C.S. Lewis' book, Till We Have Faces, is that of possessive love. Lewis himself stated that he was surprised when some readers didn’t realize that this was the primary theme them of his work.

When reading the book, I was initially struck by the difference between the way Orual and Psyche loved. Orual was extremely possessive of Psyche, whereas Psyche seemed to demonstrate a genuine and freeing kind of love towards all those whom she encountered. As I was thinking about the differences between the two sisters, I asked myself a few questions:

  1. What drove Orual to possessive love?

  2. Why was Psyche able to love so purely?

  3. How do we go from loving like Orual to loving like Psyche?

These are three questions which we will briefly examine today, but I hope to continue reflecting on these as we journey through the book and more is revealed to us by Lewis.

"The Prodigal Son" by Rembrant

What drove Orual to possessive love?

There is a scene at the beginning of Till We Have Faces where the King is asked whether his daughters should be veiled when his new wife arrives, and he responds:

“Need you ask? Do you think I want the queen frightened out of her senses? Veils, of course.

Orual writes that it was upon hearing this that she first realized that she was truly ugly. This wound from her father is repeatedly reinforced throughout the story and seems to be largely responsible for her feelings of unworthiness.

When I first read the pages where this incident takes place, I remembered a time in High School when I felt similarly shamed. As I was leaving class, a fellow student approached me and said: “Little Bush, I appreciate how you make me feel so tall!” The nickname "Little Bush" was unfortunate, but accurate. During my first two years of High School, I was barely five feet tall. I was easily one of the shortest guys in the class. I remember, at that moment, feeling small in a whole new way... In the same way that Orual carried her wound with her, I would carry that feeling of “smallness” for many years.

The natural human response is to attempt to try and fill that void created by feelings of unworthiness. There are many different ways someone can deal with it but, in my own experience, I quickly turned to achievements to make myself feel bigger. I couldn't make myself taller, but I could at least make myself smarter and more accomplished. I assumed that this would win me the love I desired.

In Matthew 6:21, Jesus said the following:

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Whatever we end up turning to in order to feel loved and worthy, we can quickly begin to worship. There is nothing wrong with a love for knowledge and a pursuit of excellence, but when it becomes your identity and how you measure your worth, it becomes dangerous; it can become a god.

As we see in Till We Have Faces, Orual began putting her sense of worth in her relationship with Psyche, and more specifically, in being needed by Psyche. As the story progresses, we will see how this love becomes distorted and increasingly possessive.

Why was Psyche able to love so purely?

Psyche is very different from her sister, being able to love those around her in a free and pure way. As the story unfolds we will be better able to explains this, but for now I want to point to a description in Chapter 2 which I think hints at a possible answer:

Psyche, almost from the beginning... was half in love with the Mountain. She made herself stories about it. ‘When I’m big,’ she said, ‘I will be a great, great queen, married to the greatest king of all, and he will build me a castle of gold and amber up there on the very top.’

While this passage might just simply seem like a girl's childish fantasy about a knight in shining armor, Psyche's longing for a future life on the Mountain is very important. Indeed, the idea of longing takes a central place in Lewis' own spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy and it will play an essential role in shaping Psyche's character over the coming chapters of Till We Have Faces.

How do we go from loving like Orual to loving like Psyche?

There will be much more to say about the differences between Orual and Psyche in future posts after we have read more of the book. For the time being, I will simply say that Lewis believed that natural loves, when not infused with the Divine love, would eventually become corrupted. In The Four Loves, Lewis enumerates these natural loves as affection, friendship and romantic love. When we are not in a relationship with Divine Love, we are not able to love rightly. It is necessary to enter into communion with God and allow his Divine Life to transform our entire being, including our natural loves.

When I am spending more time in prayer and allowing our Heavenly Father's Divine Love to pour into me, I find I am able to be more vulnerable and intentional with those around me and to love them without possessiveness. I don't put my sense of worth in these natural loves; therefore, they do not possess me. I am free to love boldly because my source of worthiness does not come from earthly things, but rather from God.

The opposite is also true. When I am not creating space for God in my life, I find myself turning to the world much more often to find my sense of worth and, because it leaves me dissatisfied, I become possessive and bitterness soon develops when I don't get what I want.

Both personal experience and this book shows us that, if we want to love genuinely and purely, we need to fill our longing with the only One who is capable of filling it - our Heavenly Father. St. Augustine said it well, when he wrote in his Confessions:

“You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Lewis knew this better than anyone. It was his great longing which drove much of his spiritual journey, and which ultimately brought him to Christ.

We will continue to explore these themes as we journey through the book.

God Bless,


P.S. The image is The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. It is one of my favorite paintings. When I picture the Divine Love wrapping itself around me, I picture that painting every time.