SPOILER WARNING: If you don't want to know what happens in Till We Have Faces, come back and read this post when you've finished the book!
This post is a summary of the book Till We Have Faces (TWHFs) by C.S. Lewis and is by no means exhaustive. As we write blog posts, we will frequently be referencing parts of the book. Rather than writing a brief summary for each post, we will link to this as a reference point for any readers. In Season 3 of our podcast, we are going through the book in great detail if you are interested in learning more.
TWHFs is Lewis' retelling of the ancient myth about Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's older sister, Orual. Orual is writing to set the record straight with the gods about the story of her sister Psyche's life and death.
The book is split into two parts. The first part is the life of Orual and her journey. We learn first-hand how she viewed situations, the way circumstances and experiences shaped her, how individuals influenced her worldview, and how those circumstances ultimately brought her to living life from a perspective of distorted love, thus effecting the decisions she made and the way she treated those around her. In the second part of the book, we see a transformation happen within her that allows her to perceive the events of her life very differently and the effect she had on other people through this distorted love.
Ultimately, Lewis says 'Till We Have Faces is a story of a possessive and jealous love that is eventually transformed by the gods, but we get to see the journey that leads to that end. Further, throughout this journey, we see the opposite of possessive love in Orual's sister, Psyche. We see a love that is infused with the divine and able to love appropriately.
Early Life in Glome
Orual begins part one with her mother's death because it was the moment when she realized her ugliness, a wound that significantly impacts her, and she would carry for the rest of her life. It was the practice to sheer the hair of the daughters after the mother's death, and when her older sister, Redival's, hair was shorn, they said, "o what a pity! All the gold is gone!" Yet she points out nothing like that was said for hers. Orual felt she was ugly and unworthy, and that drove a lot of her decisions and actions.
With the death of the Queen, the King remarries and is trying to have a son but instead has a daughter named Psyche, and she is stunningly beautiful. Given she is so much younger than Orual, Orual treats her like a daughter. Orual stated about Psyche that "she made beauty all around her. When she trod on mud, the mud was made beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When she picked up a toad – she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes – the toad became beautiful." She was not only beautiful on the outside but also the inside; she could purely love an individual for the good of that being.
Psyches' beauty is admired by all, and eventually, she is thought to be a miracle worker and able to heal the sick. The villagers demand she goes out to them to heal their fever, and it nearly costs Pysche her life. When drought and famine follow, their opinion of her changes, and they consider her Accursed. The belief is developed that the gods are jealous of her beauty, and she is to be used as a sacrifice to stop the famine and drought.
Sacrifice of Psyche
The night before the sacrifice, Orual goes to Psyche's room to comfort her, but the reverse happens. Psyche experiences a sense of peace and ends up comforting Orual. Psyche begins talking about her longing for death and being with the gods. Orual is not happy about this, accuses her of cruelty, and is hurt because she feels her sister must not love her if she is not saddened by the fact that they will be apart. We see some of Orual's jealousy and possessiveness in this seen.
After the sacrifice, Orual becomes sick for a while until the fox nurses her back to health. When she is healthy, the drought and famine are over. She wants to give Psyche a proper burial, thus travels to the Holy Mountain with Bardia (a guard who she develops a close friendship with).
When they arrive, there is no sign of Psyche until they ultimately see her alive. Psyche relates the story to Orual of what happened on the Holy Mountain. She describes the West-Wind taking her to a palace, being given a feast, and her bridegroom coming to her (despite not having seen him); everything she had longed for came true. Orual stops her because she cannot see the incredible palace that Psyche is describing. Psyche tries to persuade her the palace, incredible food, and her bridegroom are real, even though Orual cannot see it and is almost successful, but Orual's jealousy and possessiveness of Psyche prevent her from seeing it. She doesn't want to believe Psyche is happy without her. She specifically protests because Psyche, while having felt a deep presence and intimacy with her bridegroom, has not actually seen him. As their conversation is coming to an end, Orual tries to persuade Psyche to come home with her, but Psyche says she must obey another.
Before the journey home, as Bardia and Orual are resting, Orual slips away and for a moment, believes she sees the palace. On their journey home, she is questioning Bardia to get his thoughts because she is confused; why would Psyche lie to her? When she arrives home, she tells the Fox what happened to get his thoughts. The Fox believes a vagabond on the mountain got a hold of Psyche and is keeping her captive. Orual is torn between Psyche's conviction and the momentary seeing of the palace, and the Fox's rational explanation.
"Rescue" of Psyche
Orual returns to the mountain to rescue Psyche and brings a dagger. When she can't rationally convince Psyche her bridegroom is a monster, she resorts to stabbing herself to show Psyche her seriousness. She will kill herself if Psyche does not come with her; Psyche gives in. A storm brews, and Psyche is sent off weeping in the distance because she can no longer be with her bridegroom. Orual is told by a god, "You also shall be Psyche."
When Orual returns from the mountain, the last section of the book moves quickly through the remainder of her life. Orual decides to hide her face with a veil, and she becomes Queen after the King's death. She is a great Queen, and that consumes her and allows her to forget about her old self.
Part one finishes with Orual and her staff going on a journey, and at one point, she peels off and goes to a temple where a priest tells her the story of the goddess Istra. Orual realizes the story is about her and Psyche (Istra) except in the story, Istra's sister (Orual) could see the palace, yet still destroyed Istra's happiness out of jealousy. Orual is upset because the story is wrong in saying she was jealous and could see the palace. Her anger causes her to set the record straight and why she wrote the book.
Journey toward Self-Knowledge
Part two is about her journey toward knowing herself and the events of the past from a different perspective. It is a journey of self-awareness and waking up. She wrote part two after going through this to update her perspective; therefore, the tone is very different than part one.
Part two begins with Orual's first dosage of a new perspective as she learns about how Redival was incredibly lonely after Psyche and the Fox (Orual's and Psyches mentor and teacher) entered the picture. Before then, Orual and Redival were friends, and after it was Psyche, Orual and the Fox and Redival was an outcast.
Further, Orual learned that when she was Queen and Bardia was her right-hand man, she placed impossible demands on him so he would constantly be around her because she needed him, and it prevented him from being with his wife, but Bardia, out of love and duty, willingly obliged.
Later, she has a dream where she and her Father are in the Pillar Room in their palace, and they descend deep below the ground, representing her going deep within herself, and she looks in the mirror and sees the jealous god Ungit, realizing she is that jealous god and desires to kill herself upon that realization but is warned not to do it. The realization of her extreme jealousy was nearly too painful to bear.
Learning about her inner ugliness, she desires to change and become a beautiful person but finds it incredibly difficult because of her old ways. She thinks, at least, I loved Psyche purely until even that is taken from her when she has a vision of a courtroom with the gods where she is presenting her case and learns that not even her love for Psyche was pure but rather corrupted and filled with jealousy and possessiveness.
The trial finishes, and the Fox comes and apologizes for being an obstacle through his teaching only the rational to her and not understanding the spiritual. She is shown Psyche completing these necessary tasks of selflessness to enter back into communion with the gods, and the last one involves giving beauty to Orual.
The above summary is meant to focus on the chronological progression of key events to provide a background for future posts. The future posts will focus on many of the incredible themes Lewis weaves within the story.
As we explore the powerful themes in TWHFs, we will unpack the impact of Orual believing she was unworthy had on how she treated those around her. We will see how this led to distorted love, and that created jealousy and possessiveness within her. On the other hand, we will see a pure and genuine longing in Psyche to be with the gods that leads her to be able to love authentically. We also learn about how our prior beliefs can greatly impact our ability to perceive what we see. Orual saw the palace briefly but didn't want to believe it; therefore, she ignored the brief glimpse she received.
The story is wonderfully relatable and filled with many life lessons that we look forward to unpacking in future posts.